I have been perusing the shiny new agreement
cooked up thrashed out by the SNP/Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party (SGP) rather clumsily titled Working Together to Build a Greener, Fairer, Independent Scotland. I confess to having only skimmed the sections on shared policies in areas such as climate change, economic recovery etc. There seems to be nothing either surprising or seriously controversial there – although I reserve the right to return to these matters as and when it is appropriate to do so. I say that I see nothing here that is likely to feed the tribalism which has infected the Yes movement. But I am ever mindful that it is the nature of such tribalism to discover or invent dispute where none necessarily exists. We’ll wait and see what arises over the coming days.
As readers would expect, my attention was focused on the section dealing with the constitutional issue. Promisingly, this is given priority being the first chapter. But is their anything new here? Is there anything to inspire confidence that the people of Scotland will have the opportunity to exercise our right of self-determination in a free, fair, impeccably democratic and timely referendum? Or is this just another of those tedious and ultimately pointless ‘initiative’ which the SNP is notorious for deploying as a way of placating the Yes movement while kicking the constitutional can ever further down the road?
Obviously, the agreement is (or will be if ratified) rather more than the last of these. There is no doubt that this is serious political business. It is a bold move from a First Minister and SNP leader not exactly renowned for her boldness. The price is a couple of cabinet positions for SGP. Few will think that exorbitant. In return, short of an actual coalition – which was never on the cards – the agreement creates a pro-independence bloc in the Scottish Parliament such as we have not seen since the SNP’s stunning election victory in 2011. Surely that must have implications for Scotland’s cause. If it does, they are not apparent to me.
Two portentous questions hang over the matter of a new constitutional referendum. Will the referendum take place in time to preempt the malign intentions of the British government? Will the referendum be formulated and administered such as to ensure that it is a legitimate and conclusive expression of Scotland’s right of self-determination?
What I have christened the Sturgeon doctrine – the approach to the constitutional issue favoured by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP/Scottish Government offers no assurance whatever on the first of these questions, and an explicit negative on the second. The Sturgeon doctrine is too vague and ambiguous on the scheduling of the new referendum for us to have any confidence that it might take place in time to rescue Scotland from the “undermining and erosion of the devolution settlement and the powers of the Scottish Parliament by the UK Government” acknowledge in the draft agreement as being in progress now. Bearing in mind that the Union affords the British state the legal/constitutional power (although not the rightful authority) to do what it will in relation to Scotland.; and that there are numerous ways by which the British political elite might close down all democratic routes to independence; and that there is now a regime in London so contemptuous of Scotland and democracy as to be willing as well as able to lock Scotland into a ‘reformed’ political union without consultation or consent; and that the British state has the capacity to accelerate the process of subsuming Scotland into the homogenous mass of Boris Johnson’s imagined new ‘Great Britain’, initiation of the process by which Scotland’s independence might be restored has to be regarded as a matter of the utmost urgency. There is nothing in the Sturgeon doctrine which reflects such a sense of urgency. There is nothing in the new SNP/SGP agreement which departs in the smallest degree from the Sturgeon doctrine.
The concern remains as live as ever that Nicola Sturgeon supposes it possible to have a satisfactory referendum that enjoys the consent and honest cooperation of the British state. And that she is set upon putting off the referendum until such time as this has been obtained – apparently oblivious to the potentially catastrophic hazards of further delay in addition to the seven years already contrived. I find nothing in the agreement which alleviates this concern in any way. Whatever the true purpose of the pact it most certainly is not to address troubling indications that Sturgeon simply isn’t prepared for the confrontation with the British establishment entailed by any meaningful move towards ending the Union. We might have hoped that securing a strengthened pro-independence bloc in the Scottish Parliament might have emboldened Nicola Sturgeon. But there is nothing in the agreement to indicate that this is the case.
Which brings us to the second of those questions hanging over the much promised but even more postponed referendum. Just as important as the timing of a new referendum is the form that it takes. To date, all indications have been that the Sturgeon doctrine dictates an attempt to replicate as far as may be possible the 2014 referendum. Which would be pure folly! This is something I’ve addressed at length elsewhere. Here, we are asking only whether ‘Working Together to Build a Greener, Fairer, Independent Scotland‘ indicates or suggest some change in Sturgeon’s ‘thinking’ on the matter. It does not! Which would be a massive disappointment had I been expecting some change.
What the agreement certainly does is to further secure Nicola Sturgeon’s control of both party and administration. The loyalist faction shall, needless to say, hail this as the most stupendous thing since the Big Bang. They’ll greet the agreement as a work of political genius. And they may be right – at least to some extent. There’s no doubt it’s clever. The questions aren’t about the cleverness but the purpose to which that cleverness has been bent. Is it for the benefit of Scotland’s cause? Or is it for the benefit of Sturgeon herself. Loyalists shall, of course, insist that these are the same thing. That what’s good for Sturgeon is good for independence. Those disinclined to such unquestioning devotion to a leader and/or party rather than what Alex Salmond called “the beautiful dream” will note the pusillanimous procrastination of the last seven years and wonder how such a faith-position can be maintained. I can enlighten them on that. It can be maintained because it is a faith position.
By my reading – and I stand ready to hear rational arguments to the contrary – the SNP/SGP agreement changes nothing. The need still exists for a popular rising to demand immediate action on the constitutional issue and a total rethink of the whole approach to the matter of ending the Union and restoring Scotland’s independence. So I still intend to be outside Holyrood on the afternoon of 31 August to shout #UnionNoMore!
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