Please! Please! Please! Make this “indyref2 bill” less of an embarrassment than the vacuous ’11-point plan’ that isn’t a plan and doesn’t have 11 points. The SNP urgently needs to come up with something for those independence supporters who are casting around for a way to avoid voting SNP in May while also dodging responsibility for the consequences. So desperate are they for a way to rationalise withdrawing their support from the ‘party of independence’ they’re even turning to the utterly pointless ‘list parties’.
This Bill has to actually look as if it is paving the way to a referendum that is free, fair and early. If it looks like it’s preparing for another five years of cowardly dithering then the SNP is seriously screwed come May, and with it what we have to regard as our last chance to restore Scotland’s independence.
Let’s be very clear about one thing. Covid is not an acceptable excuse for further delay on top of the seven years of stagnation the independence movement has already endured. If there’s any more talk of ‘post-Covid’ or ‘when the pandemic is over’ or ‘when it’s safe’ then too many potential voters are going to see this as a ‘get-out clause’ to be deployed when the party fails yet again to deliver.
I understand that the SNP leadership has a problem. It is a problem of their own making. But maybe we could save the blame-games for when we’ve less pressing matters to deal with. The problem is Nicola Sturgeon’s inexplicably unqualified commitment to the Section 30 process. Some of us said from the outset that this was storing up difficulties that would inevitably come back with their bum-biting teeth sharpened at some point. That we have reached that point is evident from the party’s total confusion on the matter, as I wrote about yesterday.
The problem now facing Mike Russell, who presumably is overseeing the drafting of the Bill, is that he has to lay the groundwork for a referendum without a Section 30 order while the SNP’s position is still that Section 30 is the “gold standard” and the only “legal and constitutional” way to have a referendum. As far as we know, this remains Nicola Sturgeon’s perspective. And, as I write, she is still leader of the party. So how might Mike Russell formulate a Bill which is basically a proposal to do something that the party says is ‘illegal and unconstitutional? How does he execute a U-turn on Section 30 while staying facing in the same direction as his boss?
One way would be to avoid mention of Section 30 altogether. Nothing in the preamble and nothing in the announcement speech. The one thing he simply must not do is restate the intention to do nothing without first requesting a Section 30 order. He needn’t go so far as to repudiate the Section 30 process altogether. Although it would be very gratifying if he did. This is politics. What is not said can often be more significant than what is said. If Mike Russell makes a very important speech on the constitutional issue – and the announcement of a Referendum Bill is hugely important – with no mention whatever of Section 30 this would send a clear signal without actually going back on the official position. And, crucially, without contradicting the boss.
The Bill itself needs to be either quite crude or rather clever. Crude in the sense of not even pretending to leave space for a Section 30 referendum. Clever in the sense of being so contrived as to work either with or without the permission of the British Prime Minister. Obviously, my preference would be crude. But Mike Russell is quitting his job as an MSP. He is not retiring from politics. He will remain the President of the SNP and while this has traditionally been little more than an honorary title, a lot of people in the party are going to be looking to the likes of Mr Russell to help members wrest back control from the clique of crazies now running the SNP into the ground. The point being that he probably doesn’t want to fall out with Nicola Sturgeon. Not yet, anyhow.
If the Bill is as cleverly drafted as might have been the case pre-Sturgeon, then it should still leave open the option of adopting the #ManifestoForIndependence. I refuse to believe that there are no senior figures in the administration and/or the party who are now giving this option some very serious consideration. Indeed, Mike Russell himself has tacitly intimated his own inclinations. The only interesting part of his much-hyped “roadmap” to independence is the declaration that the Scottish Government will go ahead with a referendum even if a Section 30 order request is refused. Of course, it is deeply regrettable that the request will be made. But the talk of going ahead without the empty promise of cooperation from the British political elite is new and welcome. I am still wondering what Nicola Sturgeon had to say about that. She hasn’t publicly rejected the idea. There’s been no slap-down. Could that be a sign that the party line is blurring and fading? We’ll see.
One thing is certain. The SNP cannot afford to disappoint its members and others who yet hope it may be the party of independence once again. If reaction to Referendum Bill is scoffing anger then this will only send more people off in search of a way they can ditch the SNP and still claim to be acting for Scotland’s cause. And that could be disastrous for more than just the SNP. Over to you, Mike Russell. Nae pressure!