For a process to exist there must always be an answer to the question, what happens next? So, Yes wins by a comfortable margin in the proposed referendum ─ what happens next? More specifically, what happens next in the series of linked actions which form the process leading to the restoration of Scotland’s independence? If there is no clear answer to the question of what happens next, there is no process. If there is no process, there is no end result. There is no independence.
We know that nothing necessarily happens next after this Yes vote. We know this because both the First Minister and the Lord Advocate have been at some pains to stress that there is no direct legal consequence of a Yes vote. There is nothing that must happen as a consequence of a Yes vote. If nothing must happen that what must tend to happen is nothing. If nothing must happen then there can be no clear answer the question, what happens next.
Nothing happens unless someone or something makes it happen. Both the First Minister and the Lord Advocate have informed us that the democratically expressed will of Scotland’s people is not sufficient to make something happen. In this, they are in full agreement with the British government. They too insist that the democratically expressed will of Scotland’s people is not sufficient to make something happen. Even if we vote overwhelmingly in favour of having a referendum, this does not necessarily mean that a referendum will happen.
We, the people of Scotland, have voted decisively for a new independence referendum several times. The British government says that doesn’t count for anything because the people of Scotland are not sovereign, the British parliament is. The Scottish Government also says it doesn’t count for anything unless (a) the British Prime Minister agrees or (b) a British court overrules the British government.
So much for the people of Scotland being sovereign!
What happens next? Apart from the principle of popular sovereignty being critically compromised, it’s hard to see what can be the effect of a referendum which the highest political and legal authorities have deemed to be without effect. What does the First Minister expect will be the effect of the referendum that she has said will have no effect? What does she expect will happen as a consequence of a Yes win by a comfortable margin? As far as it’s possible to tell, she hopes that the British government will respect the outcome of the referendum and do something that takes the process on to some further stage. It is not at all clear why the British government would choose to respect the outcome of a referendum that even the First Minister say needn’t be respected. Nor is it clear what the British government might do to progress the restoration of Scotland’s independence. Given all we know, it would be surpassingly strange if they did anything of the sort.
Besides, the British government is a third party. A process cannot be critically dependent on action being taken by a third party. Particularly when that third party has made it abundantly clear that there are absolutely no circumstances in which they will take this action ─ whatever it might be. To qualify as a process all parts must be controlled by those charged with implementing the process. The only action that can be relied upon is action which is totally in the hands of the First Minister and the Scottish Government.
Nicola Sturgeon could answer the question of what happens next after a clear Yes vote. Has she done so? Weeelll… sort of! What she says, as I understand it, is that if there is a Yes vote and the British government chooses not to respect it and do whatever it is that they might do as part of the process of restoring Scotland’s independence but for the fact that they have categorically ruled out doing ─ or ‘allowing’ ─ anything at all that might be part of a process leading to the restoration of Scotland’s independence, then the First Minister will respond by respecting the British government’s choice not to respect the democratically expressed will of Scotland’s people and moving on to the next stage in what we are assured is a very clever political strategy.
So much for the sovereignty of Scotland’s people.
What happens next after a Yes vote in the referendum in which a Yes vote only counts if the British Prime Minister has some kind of ‘episode’ ─ a possibility which cannot be ruled out completely ─ is that we do it all again. But instead of having a referendum in which only No votes have any effect and do so regardless of whether they are in the majority, we have a “de facto” referendum ─ an election pretending to be a referendum. Or, to be more precise, an election in which some of the parties contesting the election pretend that it is a referendum while everybody else ─ the other parties and all but an infinitesimal part of the media and the vast majority of the voters ─ all proceed on the basis that the election is, in fact, an election and not a referendum.
Nonetheless, as far as Nicola Sturgeon and her party and maybe one or two other parties in Scotland are concerned, the election is a “de facto” referendum. Suppose the Yes vote wins by a comfortable margin in this election-cum-referendum. What happens next?
It’s not at all clear why we might expect an election that the SNP says is a referendum to carry any more weight than a referendum that the SNP says is a referendum but which carries no weight at all. If there was a Yes vote in this “de facto” referendum then what happens next would be for the Scottish Government to decide. So long as we are operating withing the bounds of British law, there can be no direct legal consequence flowing from a “de facto” referendum any more than there can from a referendum that is actually a referendum. For there to be any consequence at all that consequence could only be some action taken by the Scottish Government acting through the Scottish Parliament.
It seems we’re back where we started having achieved nothing other than compromising the sovereignty of Scotland’s people and demonstrating that the British ruling elites have no regard for democracy. Which we already knew. Oh! And one more thing! We would now have had not one but two referendums in addition to the one in 2014. Because while both the proposed referendum that is a referendum and the proposed “de facto” referendum that is actually an election may have no effect if there is a Yes vote, we can be sure they will be recognised as real referendums after the fact by the British government. They will count for nothing other than being counted as ‘indyref2’ and ‘indyref3’ by the British state.
Speaking of which, the British state will not be idle while all this is going on. I was speaking with my good friend Mike Fenwick yesterday and he said something that put a vivid image in my mind. He spoke of British Prime Minister Truss (or Sunak, it makes no difference) appearing on the steps of 10 Downing Street to proclaim that ‘the nation’ had had enough of this independence nonsense and they were going to put a stop to it. Mike left it to my imagination to fill in the bit about what they would actually do. I had no difficulty conjuring a few credible scenarios.
At some point, the British political elite is going to act to secure the Union in perpetuity. There are a number of ways they might do this. It must be so given that the Union gives them the power to do pretty much anything they want with Scotland. They could, for example, unilaterally alter the constitutional status of the UK to create a single British state indivisible and indissoluble. This would leave Scotland in a position which would at last allow valid comparisons with Catalonia.
Then what happens?
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