I think I can reasonably claim to have run somewhat ahead of the pack in the matter of opposing the Section 30 process so enthusiastically favoured by our First Minister – and so dutifully promoted my those who take their lead from her pronouncements rather than their own intellect and conscience. This is not a huge boast. I certainly wasn’t alone in denouncing the Section 30 process as the “gold standard” of British state legal and constitutional devices for maintaining the dominance of England-as-Britain in their “precious” Union. And there was no huge intellectual effort involved in figuring out that the Alex Salmond having cleverly turned that process to Scotland’s advantage to secure the 2014 referendum did not mean that it was the best way to secure a new referendum. In fact, it meant the opposite. Fool the British ruling elite once – kudos to you! Try to fool them the same way a second time – could we have our kudos back please!
There is no way the Section 30 process can lead to a free and fair referendum. It simply isn’t a realistic possibility. In years to come we will look back and wonder why anybody ever thought that a free and fair referendum might be the outcome of a process entirely and crucially dependent on the willing and honest cooperation of those most fervently opposed to any kind of referendum which would put the Union in jeopardy. Section 30 was inserted in the Scotland Act 1998 largely if not principally to allay the fears of those who opposed devolution on the grounds that it was the thin end of a separatist wedge. Which, of course, is precisely what it was. Happily!
That there has been a shift towards opposition to – or at least questioning of – Nicola Sturgeon’s favoured route to a referendum is surely beyond question. When you have a group calling itself SNP Members for Independence attracting significant support that includes some prominent figures in the SNP and wider Yes movement, there’s obviously something in the air. When a group whose very name is a chastisement of the party leadership becomes an influential forum for the constitutional debate that the SNP leadership has tried so hard to close down, the smell in the air becomes unmistakably that of open dissent.
Opposition to the Section 30 process has gone from the loony obsession of a handful of zoomers to the stuff of mainstream politics in a matter of months. So much so that it is the subject of articles such as Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh’s column in today’s National.
In her address to the almost-conference-like-thing at the weekend there were moderately promising signs that the odour of objection has impinged on Nicola Sturgeon’s olfactory sense. She’s in a tricky position. She faces a difficulty entirely of her own making. By committing so heavily and wholeheartedly to the Section 30 process she closed off pretty much all her other options. Her pronouncements on the matter effectively declared anything other than the Section 30 process illegal and unconstitutional. Not a smart move for any politician. Certainly not something she learned from her mentor and predecessor as both party leader and First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon now faces the problem of opposition to her position which threatens to get serious very quickly and exits from that position that are locked because she locked them. She has, by my reckoning, but one card to play – the will of the people.
What is now mere questioning of the Section 30 process becomes insistence on consideration of alternatives which becomes demand for a change of approach which becomes an irresistible surge as more and more people latch on to the hopelessness of the Section 30 process, or jump on the bandwagon of dissent just because they like the smell. Or maybe because the bandwagon is at least moving whereas the fight to restore Scotland’s independence has stalled. This is both a problem for Sturgeon and the potential solution to that problem. U-turns such as she would have to execute to go with the flow of this surge of dissent are politically difficult – but not impossible. Her previous comments on the Section 30 process can be played down while she ‘heeds the voice of the membership’ and announces a new approach. Or at least her willingness to listen to concerns and cooperate with those looking at alternatives.
This will earn her the ire of a few people thought of as being close to the party leadership. Let’s just call them the usual suspects. But since most of them were only insisting on the Section 30 process because the boss insisted on it, we may anticipate that they will do their own mini-U-turns lest they lose their grip on Nicola’s coat-tails. Which is handy in itself as much of the inevitable taunting about the volte face can be deflected onto them. Expect Daily Express headlines about how this or that SNP ‘grandee’ is “FURIOUS” about Nicola Sturgeon’s “betrayal”. Ho-hum!
The change of approach – renunciation of the Section 30 process – is likely to be quite sudden and to happen very soon. If it doesn’t happen in time for the new approach to be at the top of the SNP’s manifesto for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election then it won’t really matter. That the SNP will win that election is hardly in doubt. Without a timely change of approach the mandate the party takes into government will be a mandate to put in yet another request for a Section 30 order, with no clear undertaking about what comes next. A situation ripe for exploitation by a British regime already engaged in an effort to undermine, bypass, denigrate and delegitimise the Scottish Parliament.
What I’m saying here is that it is hardly worth considering scenarios in which the SNP doesn’t adopt a Manifesto for Independence in time for next year’s election – which means now. If the outcome of the election is not a Scottish Government fully committed to and engaged with a process by which to hold a constitutional referendum authorised by the Scottish Parliament that is wholly made and managed in Scotland, then we can say goodbye to devolution, distinctiveness and democracy. Farewell to Scotland’s identity as a nation. There’s no point in us thinking about what we will do under these circumstances because the circumstances preclude us having power to do anything.
The Yes movement’s focus now must be on maintaining the pressure on the SNP to adopt the Manifesto for Independence. We will also have to decide exactly what the alternative is to be. And assuming this all to be in train, we must give serious consideration to how we reframe the referendum campaign to conform to the new approach. We have to think in terms of a referendum no later than September 2021. Speaking as the new President of the SNP Mike Russell says the campaign will require a “totally unified approach”. He is a man who should be listened to – despite the fact that he has been infected with the ‘never closer’ fallacy. That’ll teach him to stay two metres away from Ayn Smith.
As we go into the New Year it will hopefully be possible and appropriate for me to move on from being an anti-Section 30 obsessive and concentrate on the matter of how and in what way we reframe the constitutional issue and the campaign for #Referendum2021. I may still be regarded in some quarters at least as a zoomer. But being a zoomer hasn’t prevented me being right before.