Writing in The National today Joanna Cherry urges us all to be more open-minded about possible routes to a new referendum and independence (Joanna Cherry: History shows a referendum is not the only route to independence). To use my own favoured form of words she implores us to think outside the British box. Although she refers to it as looking at the constitutional issue “through the prism of devolution”, there is really no difference. Devolution is part of that British box which tends to constrain thinking about the constitutional issue and much else in Scotland. Devolution is, if you like, one side of that box. It is not a constitutional reform for the purpose of improving Scotland’s governance and our democracy. It is just another part of a British legal and constitutional framework which has evolved for the purpose of preserving the Union and Scotland’s subordinate status within it. Section 30 of the Scotland Act may be regarded as a restatement of that purpose.
It’s good advice. So I’m curious to know why Joanna Cherry herself declines to follow it. A puzzling thing indeed. But it cannot be denied that she eschews her own excellent advice to stop thinking of the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England only as this has come to be defined by the ruling elites of England-as-Britain and their collaborators in Scotland. The following passage from her column makes this all too painfully plain.
I am wholly in agreement with the view that we must find a legal and constitutional way to demonstrate that public opinion in Scotland has changed since the 2014 referendum in order for our independence to be internationally recognised and therefore meaningful.
I also agree that the easiest and best way to do that would be to replicate the Edinburgh Agreement entered into by Alex Salmond and David Cameron in 2012 by obtaining a Section 30 order so that the Scottish Parliament may hold a second independence referendum which will demonstrate irrefutably that the result of the first one has been reversed. But what if Boris Johnson continues to refuse to co-operate?
The notion that the Edinburgh Agreement can be replicated is both naive and nonsensical. Nonsensical because it assumes that public opinion on the matter of restoring Scotland’s independence is the only thing that has changed since 2014. Naive because it supposes that the current British regime would agree to the same terms. It would be easier, and less tedious, to list the things that haven’t changed in the last decade. In the period leading up to the first referendum the world was a very different place. Scotland’s political landscape was most decidedly not as it is now. The Edinburgh Agreement was a product of its time. That time has past. The Agreement cannot be replicated – or even approximated – because the prevailing conditions cannot be replicated – or even approximated.
If we got to the stage where a new Edinburgh Agreement was being negotiated then it would only be because the British political elite were assured of being able scupper those negotiations. Having first extracted from the Scottish Government a solemn undertaking not to proceed with a referendum in the absence of Edinburgh Agreement II, it would be all too easy for the British side to make demands to which the Scottish Government could not possibly agree. Insistence on a qualified majority would do it. Especially if combined with demands for a limited franchise excluding those aged 16 and 17. No Agreement. No referendum. No independence. And the Scottish Government get all the blame for being so ‘intransigent’.
Replicating the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement is not easy or preferable or even possible. And neither is finding a “legal and constitutional way” for Scotland’s people to exercise our right of self determination. Not if you are confined to the legal and constitutional framework devised by the British. Which is what you’re doing if you’re following the Section 30 process. There is no route to a free and fair referendum that the British state won’t declare illegal and unconstitutional. The British political elite will not allow a free and fair referendum which might end the Union. The Union is far to important to them. They call it ‘precious’ for a reason.
Does Joanna Cherry not realise that even giving credence – never mind preference – to the Section 30 process is a defining example of looking at the constitutional issue through the “prism of devolution”? The very thing she says we must not do! If you’re even asking the question, “But what if Boris Johnson continues to refuse to co-operate?”, then your thinking is still stuck in that ‘Great British Box’.
If Scotland’s independence is to be restored before the British make the restoration of Scotland’s independence effectively impossible, then we must think entirely outside that stupefying and debilitating box of Britishness. If the journey to Scotland’s independence is to be completed then we must be prepared to travel outside the legal and constitutional framework which will hinder and obstruct and entangle us no matter what path we take through its maze.
If we want recognition by the international community then it is their respect we need and not Westminster’s approval. We will only win that respect by acting in a way that deserves it. We will not win respect – or retain much in the way of self-respect – if we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by chains made not of steel but of our own belief in their existence. We will only gain the respect of the international community if we demonstrate a willingness to assert for ourselves the attributes of a normal independent nation.
The debate about Plan B is like an argument over what are the best brakes for a car that doesn’t even run and only deserves to be scrapped. If we are to formulate a new plan that is fit for our purpose then we must first forge a fresh mindset. A mindset which doesn’t fret about whether Boris Johnson might continue to refuse to co-operate, because it doesn’t entertain the idea of his cooperation being relevant.
We must stop thinking of independence as a nice thing that we might have if a benign British state would just give it to us. But not so nice as to worth any kind of confrontation. We must start to think of independence as an essential thing that Scotland must take from a malign British state intent on maintaining and tightening its grip on our nation. And be prepared to deal with any confrontation in order to do so.
To restore Scotland’s independence we must first be able to imagine Scotland as an independent nation. Forget all the ‘visions’ and policy agendas. Strip those away and find the essence of that restored independence and what it means at the most fundamental level. You will be imagining a nation which would not tolerate the Union or the encumbrances and iniquities it imposes on us.
Joanna Cherry seems to have grasped the need for a fresh mindset. But the mindset itself still eludes her.