Hanlon’s error

I note in passing that, as I write, there are nearly 70 comments on The National’s report of what Chris Hanlon said and a mere half dozen on his actual statement. I’ve an idea this tells us something interesting about the way people consume media messages. But that is a thought to be pursued elsewhere.

I have a great deal of respect for Chris Hanlon. I know him slightly from our encounters at SNP conferences, back in the fondly remembered days when such things existed and were of some significance. One thing I know about him is that he is diligent. He tends to be on top of his brief whatever matter he may be dealing with. He does his research. He is thorough. He is well-prepared. I think anyone who has heard him speak at conference would testify to this.

My impression of Chris Hanlon was as an individual who would always think things through before taking a position. Which is why I unhesitatingly voted for him as policy development committee convener – which was a very important position when the SNP could claim to have meaningful internal democratic structures and procedures. If you’ll forgive the nostalgic reminiscence.

I stress my regard for Chris because I am of the opinion that he has let himself down rather badly with this statement. I don’t know what prompted him to embrace the notion of a multi-option referendum including ‘devo-max’ – an ill-defined term at best. I can’t think of a single good reason why he would abandon his popular sovereignty fundamentalism. Indeed, I can’t think of any way to be anything other than a fundamentalist when it comes to the sovereignty of the people. It is arguably the most fundamental and essential principle of democracy. It cannot be diluted in any way without being destroyed. If popular sovereignty is compromised, it ceases to be popular sovereignty. Partial sovereignty exists in the same way as does partial pregnancy.

To see how Chris has got this wrong it is necessary to understand what we’re referring to when we talk about a referendum. We must understand its purpose and what form it must take if it is to fulfil that purpose effectively. Above all, we must not confuse a referendum with an election. Elections are for making choices. Referendums are for making decisions. In principle, an election may offer the people an infinite number of choices of candidates and manifestos. The people vote according to their choices and by various formal processes their votes are translated into a parliament and a government and, in theory at least, a policy programme. Theoretically, the people get the parliament, government and policies of their choosing. How closely these things actually reflect the people’s choice is a function of the constitution. The perfect constitutional settlement would be one that without exception results in a parliament, government and policy programme which precisely reflects the will of the people. Needless to say, that never happens in real life. Constitutional politics is about making sure the will of the people is honoured. Or ensuring that it isn’t. Like all politics, it’s a contest of ideas and ideals. The best rarely win. But the worst are generally defeated. That’s democracy.

Where the outcome of an election may be some ill-defined, partly-formed compromise among a host of choices offered and made, a referendum should be decisive. The outcome should be not merely a result but a decision. A decision on a particular course of action. In a representative democracy we use elections to choose the people and parties that will make decisions on our behalf for the following four or five years. In a referendum that is done correctly the people take to themselves the power to make a decision on a particular matter.

In order to ensure a clear and unambiguous decision a referendum must be binary. Multi-option referendums are close to being a contradiction in terms. Even if, as in the situation Chris Hanlon refers to, there is powerful evidence that one option will emerge as the unarguable winner, there still remains the potential for the votes to split in a way which produces no decision. Consider both the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2016 EU referendum. Both produced results but no decision. There was no inevitable course of action entailed by the result in either of these cases. In both cases what ensued from the vote was a prolonged and increasingly acrimonious debate about what the result meant.

A referendum which produces a result without a decision is an exercise which has failed by definition. It serves only to intensify debate over the issue that it was supposed to settle. Multi-option referendums are a bad idea because they are inherently liable to fail. If we accept the principle of multi-option referendums then we are accepting the likelihood of failure.

Done properly, a referendum cannot fail. Being binary means that there is only a vanishingly unlikely possibility that the vote won’t go one way or the other. So long as the options offered are distinct, defined and deliverable then the referendum must produce a decision as to one of two courses of action. Distinct meaning that the options must be totally dissimilar. Defined meaning that each option must be precisely described at the outset and that this description must remain fixed. Deliverable meaning that it must be something that is within the power of the parliament/government being instructed by the referendum. It must be a course of action that can be taken without reference to any other agency. It must be a change which can be implemented solely on the strength of the referendum result.

Chris Hanlon’s idea to include a third option in a new independence referendum fails to meet the criteria for a ‘good’ referendum. Even though he makes an effort to tightly define what he terms “devo-min-max” it is still devolution. It is not meaningfully dissimilar from what we already have. It is neither independence nor ‘devo-max’. It is obviously not independence. It looks a bit like what a federal settlement would give us if such a thing were possible and acceptable without independence being restored first. But it is the third criterion that totally sinks Chris’s “devo-min-max”. It is not deliverable.

The Scottish Parliament cannot bring about such a settlement. It would have to be referred to Westminster. So that’s popular sovereignty gone right away. Only the Scottish Parliament has democratic legitimacy in Scotland. Only the Scottish Parliament can have the rightful authority to act on the decision made by the sovereign people of Scotland by means of a referendum. An option which requires that authority to be ceded to another agency cannot be valid. The sovereignty of the people is inalienable and non-negotiable (A lesson Nicola Sturgeon is yet to learn.)

But “devo-min-max” isn’t only undeliverable by the Scottish Parliament. There is also the problem that it won’t and can’t be delivered by the British state. Chris’s “devo-min-max” includes elements which would require the British political elite to make concessions which it is not only unwilling to make but is incapable of making. The concessions demanded by “devo-min-max” would affect England as well as Scotland because they would fundamentally alter the status of the British/English parliament. By granting (note that ghastly word!) “devo-min-max” the British would be compromising the sovereignty of parliament. And that is the principle which underpins the entire British state. It is what makes possible the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state.

By allowing (another ghastly word!) “devo-min-max” the British state would effectively be legislating itself out of existence. And doing so without any reference to the people of England or the rest of the UK.

Sorry, Chris! Your idea is a non-starter. You really should have thought it through.

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19 thoughts on “Hanlon’s error

  1. It always strikes me that ‘devo max’ should just be the development of devolution to make it work better. When the indyref ended in a ‘no’ those who voted thus were really voting for the status quo which in Scotland’s case was devolution. This would still be the case if there was another indyref, i.e. ‘yes’ to independence, ‘no’ for keeping the status quo, so a ‘devo max’ option would always be superfluous.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting that the actual statement in The National as a lot less detail than the “exclusive”. The latter contains much wide-eyed speculation which appears utterly at odds with what Hanlon says. For example:

    Hanlon: What it would do however is create a path to independence that we can walk down at our own pace whenever we choose.

    Nutt: And he also believed Holyrood could gain the power to sign international treaties, paving the way for Scotland to get a Northern Ireland style Brexit arrangement allowing closer trading ties to the EU.

    This is making no sense whatsoever. Clearly the idea is being floated and Hanlon is the patsy to take the flak. It also seems coordinated with what Starmer is saying so there must be some high-level communication going on.

    Peter, from your assessment of Hanlon it seems reasonable that he is genuine in wanting to break the logjam however it seems the ball was stripped away from him and another agenda is being pursued. Any ideas?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sorry, Stuart. I’m baffled by this. Both the intervention and the reaction from the party. I’m perplexed that Chris has come out with such a patently bad idea. And I’m surprised the party leadership didn’t just ignore him the way they ignore others who stray from the party line. That’s their usual modus operandi for dealing with dissent of any kind. Death by disregard.


  3. I was more than surprised when I saw the report in the National today. I also have high respect for Chris Hanlon and his views. Something is afoot.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hanlon is still on the SNPs Policy Development Committee, though to read the National’s headline you wouldn’t thinks so. The millionaire knight of the realm and leader of the Labour party Sir Keir Starmer has Gordon Brown working on “rewiring” Scotland’s place within the union, he said so in his keynote speech in Birmingham recently.

    Starmer has already made it known that he won’t have a pact with the SNP at Westminster, though I’m sure Devomax would suit Ian Blackford.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The only way any variety of devo-max could be made to stick is if it were an international treaty (as is the GFA). And you can’t sign a treaty without sovereignty. And you can’t have sovereignty without independence.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. It’s certainly stirred some people up in the SNP including Russell and Giugliano, it has Curtice and Mitchell giving their opinons, it has coverage in the Herald and presumably elsewhere, and apparently Unionists shouting about it being a trap for the NO side.

    So, well done Chris, job done. And Indy debates kick-started in the New Year into full flow 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The original SNP is now a memory – even to many who’ve ceased being members; presently, Scottish politics is awash with a confusion of interests/suggestions… To the satisfaction of London’s government more than The Scottish Parliament – not least the Simply Not Preparing Party (SNP).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The Referendum is to decide who governs us. What is decided by them is for another day. We must not offer an olive branch to the Unionists because as Peter says that’s our Sovereignty right out the window. It’s not an option. This whole exercise is to regain our Sovereignty. England/UK will cling on in the hope that somewhere down the road they’ll regain full control of us again. For me that’s not an option. Shoot them dead now at the earliest opportunity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A referendum is a dead end for Scottish independence, as is any route via London, what is needed is a plebiscitary election, we urged Sturgeon to use May’s 2021 elections as one but she ignored us, we can’t let that happen again.


      1. There must be a referendum. There is absolutely no reason the referendum should be “via London”. Only dumb fantasists could believe Sturgeon might attempt to make last May’s election entirely about independence. The more realistic option was to have the SNP adopt the Manifesto for Independence. But most of the Yes movement was too busy pursuing other projects to bother about what best served Scotland’s cause.

        Take what comfort you can from blaming Sturgeon. History will spread the blame much more widely.


      2. I’m pretty sure there are countries out there who became independent without an indyref, of course Scotland is special in the eyes of some, the question must be England aside, do we need an indyref to appease the international community? as far as I’m aware on the economics side of things, the SSRG, supplied the answer that EFTA would accept Scotland as long as it had the powers to make decisions on international matters.

        Whose to say that EU nations wouldn’t recognise the result of a plebiscitary election, the USA however is another matter.


        1. The international community – to the limited extent that such a thing even exists – is not as some suppose, concerned with the ‘legality’ of the process by which independence is restored so much as the democratic legitimacy. A referendum is the best way of demonstrating that democratic legitimacy. But even more important is that the democratic legitimacy of the process should be obvious and unimpeachable in the eyes of Scotland’s people. There must be no question about it being the will of the people.

          There MUST be a referendum. The only thing at issue is what kind of referendum it should be. The SNP has put the referendum right at the start of the process. This is a mistake. The referendum should be used to confirm action taken by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament subsequent to such action being mandated in an election.

          Forget other countries. Constitutional situations differ too much for comparisons to make sense. The closest parallel with our situation is the dissolution of the political union between Norway and Sweden at the beginning of the 20th century. Try this article https://peterabell.scot/2019/10/18/how-to-restore-independence/.


      3. “is not as some suppose, concerned with the ‘legality’ of the process by which independence is restored so much as the democratic legitimacy.”

        A fair point, is not a plebiscitary election a democratic process? the public gets to vote who they want to put into office.


        1. For an election to function as a plebiscite there must be general agreement that this is its purpose. Imagine if such an election were called by the SNP but all the British parties decided to talk about everything except independence. They could then claim that the election could not possibly be a plebiscite on a single issue because people were being asked to vote on a range of issues. How do you prove that everybody voted solely on the constitutional issue? A plebiscitary election cannot be as conclusive as is required. Only a binary referendum can produce both a result and a decision. Only a referendum on the Union that is entirely made and managed in Scotland can settle the matter.


  9. I think it is just possible that this is under consideration within the snp unionist branch. Being polite here. Has he made this statement to make sure it gets out?


    1. It is credible that Chris might attempt such a ‘spoiler’. Not so credible that the idea was under serious consideration. Although one shouldn’t discount even that, I suppose.


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