Why we shouldn’t be taking Chris McEleny’s indyref back-up plan too seriously

If Boris Johnson continues to reject [requests for a Section 30 order], then a pro-independence majority in May’s Scottish Parliament elections should act as a mandate for the Scottish Government to hold a referendum on independence with or without the support of the UK Government.

Kevin McKenna

There you have summed up in a single paragraph one of the most serious flaws in the Plan B being proposed by Councillor Chris McEleny and Angus MacNeil MP. The ‘roadmap’ set out be Chris McEleny may be perfectly sound. I can’t comment because I’ve done no more than skim read it. I had no incentive to study it in detail because it fails as a plan right at the outset. And it fails for precisely the same reason that Plan A fails. Both take as their starting point the assumed need to ask for the British Prime Minister’s consent and approval before the sovereign people of Scotland may exercise our democratic right of self-determination. Both concede to the British Prime Minister an effective veto on a fundamental and inalienable democratic right vested in the people of Scotland. Both thus compromise the sovereignty of Scotland’s people. Both propose trading our sovereignty for British promises of honest cooperation and assurances that they will respect the democratically expressed will of the Scottish people.

Both Plan a and Plan B allow that the British political elite somehow has not only the rightful authority to prohibit the full and proper exercise of our sovereignty but the ‘right’ to be involved in and largely control the process by which the people of Scotland choose the form of government which best serves our needs, priorities and aspirations.

At least Plan A is consistent. It first acknowledges that the sovereignty of the Scottish people is subordinate to the will of the British Prime Minister and that’s an end to it. If the British Prime Minister says ‘now is not the time’ Plan A proposes that we respond with ‘maybe next time’. Plan B, on the other hand, first says the British Prime Minister’s consent is required and then says that it isn’t. The plan is to respond to the rejection of a request for a Section 30 order by insisting we didn’t need it in the first place. Plan B involves a mind-bending contradiction / inconsistency.

Either the people of Scotland are sovereign and we don’t need a Section 30 order or we aren’t and we do. Either the British Prime Minister has the rightful authority to withhold required consent or consent isn’t required and the question of it being withheld doesn’t arise. It can’t be both. Logic forbids it.

Of course, the proponents of both Plan A and Plan B try to wriggle out of the inconsistency / contradiction they have in common by insisting that the British Prime Minister’s veto isn’t really a veto. They argue that a Section 30 request isn’t asking permission to exercise our right of self-determination, it is merely seeking an undertaking that the British state will respect and accept the outcome of us exercising our right of self-determination. As if the British state had a perfectly legitimate right to disrespect Scotland’s democratic will.

The argument goes that we needn’t worry our silly wee heads about all of this because at the end of the day and despite the damning evidence to the contrary, the British state is democratic and bound to respect the basic principles of democracy. And besides, the Section 30 process allows the British government to impose conditions on and directly intervene in the exercise of our right of self-determination such as to ensure they get the outcome they want. That way they’re bound to respect the outcome. Aren’t they? They’ll be bound to accept it. Won’t they?

While we’re on the subject of inconsistencies and contradictions, how about the notion that the British government which treats our right of self-determination with casual contempt will respect a mandate given by voters to the Scottish Government.

Kevin O’Neil tells us that Plan B should be taken seriously. But that would require us to turn a blind eye to the issues with Section 30 such as that described above. Issues which have never been addressed. Issues that clearly apparent if the pertinent questions are asked. Questions such as, what if Boris says yes?

Plan A deals with the question of what happens if a Section 30 order is granted by blithely assuming that things will then proceed pretty much as they did for the 2014 referendum. I surely can’t be alone in thinking a lot has changed since then. Apart from anything else, Boris Johnson is not David Cameron. And for all her undoubted qualities and abilities, Nicola Sturgeon is not Alex Salmond. More importantly, the entire political environment has changed. The 2014 referendum was held before British Nationalism became the force that it is today. It simply makes no sense to proceed on the assumption that these changes have no significant implications for the constitutional issue.

Plan B makes no provision for a Section 30 order being granted. And yet this is at the very least a possibility. Shouldn’t all possibilities be considered? In fact, granting a Section 30 order would make perfect sense – from the British perspective. And, despite being critically dependent on a Section 30 order being refused (or ignored!), Plan B may make it more likely that the British Prime Minister will give gracious permission to do what we have an absolute and inalienable right to do with or without the British Prime Minister’s permission.

If, as is presumably the belief of Chris McEleny and Angus MacNeil – not to mention their supporters – that Plan B is a good plan; an effective plan; a foolproof plan, then it may well be that the British will want to circumvent it. Requesting a Section 30 order allows them to do this by the simple expedient of saying yes. Because that ‘yes’ will come decked out in all manner of conditions, caveats, provisions and provisos.

The easiest way of preventing the initiation of Plan B would be for the British Prime Minister to agree to grant a Section 30 order, but suspended until the public health crisis and its economic aftermath have been dealt with – otherwise known as never. The First Minister can hardly object as she is on record as saying that the constitutional issue must take second place to the pandemic.

Alternatively, the British Prime Minister might grant a Section 30 order that is conditional on the two governments reaching agreement on the referendum process. Negotiations could then be dragged out indefinitely or the whole thing could be scuppered by the British government making demands that the Scottish Government cannot agree to. No agreement! No referendum! No restoration of Scotland’s independence!

Having given a flavour of the issues that beset both Plan A and Plan B, I worry that there is so little discussion of alternatives to both. It seems very much as if debate is being limited to these two options. There was no debate at all at the SNP Conference, of course. But I am deeply troubled that due consideration is not being given to the problems entailed by a further Section 30 request. I am seriously concerned that no consideration at all is being given to any options other than the two presently on the table.

It is simply a fact that the Section 30 process cannot lead to a free and fair referendum. If there is a referendum at all then it will be under conditions imposed by the British government. Which, for the purposes of the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination must be considered a ‘foreign’ government – on account of it not being the Scottish Government. And yet the only plans being offered for consideration propose to not merely tolerate external interference but to invite it and formalise it and legitimise it.

Long experience of political discourse teaches me that the immediate response to such observation will tend to be a demand that I provide an alternative to the options that I deem unfit for purpose. Such demands evade completely the issues being described as they attempt to divert discussion to something else entirely. As if criticism can only be valid if it is accompanied by a solution.

Besides, once the problems with the Section 30 process are recognised, the alternative becomes obvious. Although that may depend to a significant extent on how one defines the objective. If the aim is to give Boris Johnson our lunch money in the hope that he won’t push our head down the toilet and call it democracy, then there is no problem with the Section 30 process. If the purpose is to restore Scotland’s independence, the Section 30 process will be seen as wholly inadequate. Which rules out both Plan A and Plan B regardless of whether or not there is any alternative.

I have booked a place at the SNP Assembly called in an attempt to mollify those members who were ‘disappointed’ that no discussion of the approach to the constitutional issue was permitted at the party’s last Conference. I am not under any illusions about this Assembly. I know precisely why it is being held and expect nothing of any consequence to proceed from it. But it would be gratifying if those taking part were at least open to thinking more critically about what is on offer.

If my criticisms are considered valid and cannot be resolved within either of the plans on offer then neither of those plans can be considered acceptable. Both must be rejected. Advocates for both Plan A and Plan B should attend the Assembly ready to defend their proposals. The onus is on them to persuade people like myself that their plans can and will lead to a free and fair referendum. There is absolutely no point and nothing to be gained from discussing a fresh approach to the constitutional issue until those who have hitched their wagon to one of the existing plans are ready to think outside the British box.

5 thoughts on “Why we shouldn’t be taking Chris McEleny’s indyref back-up plan too seriously

  1. It should be self-evident that having a fair and free referendum, on the one hand, and including the British in the process of our self determination, on the other, are incompatible stances.

    The two positions are mutually exclusive.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You can’t win a war by playing by your opponents rules. Mauritius was decolonised and the Chagos Archipelago was separated from Mauritius effectively leaving the UK as the controlling administering power of the Chagos islands. The people were kicked out of their islands. The international Court of Justice ruled against the UK and the matter is still not resolved. By accepting a S30 order we are explicitly recognising the authority of another administration to exercise power over us unless the S30 agreement states that it is the fundamental right of the people of Scotland to determine its future. Otherwise, we might be caught up for years in legal debates as despite the ICJ finding against the UK, the Chagos islands matter is still not resolved. In my opinion we should hold a vote to end the Treaty of Union and then vote for our choice of government. Just some thoughts…..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If we refuse to allow British involvement in any way and the British take it to the ICJ what chance have they got? How could the ICJ possibly rule against the Independence cause? What the S30 does do is give credence to the British case. An own goal in other words.

    Liked by 1 person

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