If you are clutching at straws, at least make sure they are real straws. The straw some independence activists had been clutching at was the notion of persuading Nicola Sturgeon to commit political hara-kiri by resigning and ultimately forcing an extraordinary general election as her colleagues in the pro-independence parties blocked the election of a new First Minister. This would have worked. By which I mean it could, in principle, be done. It all accords with the Scotland Act and parliamentary procedures. It is certainly possible to force an extraordinary election in this way.
The mistake many made was imagining that because it was possible it must be a good idea. Because it was feasible as a way of forcing an election, they supposed it would be effective as a cunning plan for having an independence referendum. They envisaged the election being a de facto referendum which would… what? What would this election in referendum’s clothing (or vice versa?) achieve for Scotland’s cause? Not independence, that’s for sure. I sincerely hope no more than a handful of deluded numpties imagined this de facto referendum could substitute for a formal exercise of our right of self-determination. It wouldn’t even serve as referendum never mind a proper constitutional referendum. It would be something less than the glorified opinion poll that was Sturgeon’s favoured idea.
Referendums are binary. Elections are not. Not ever. There is no way to make an election binary. Which is why we have both elections and referendums. I hesitate to say that referendums are always binary. All I’ll say is that if they are not binary, they won’t really work as a referendum is supposed to work. But that is another discussion. The exercise of our right of self-determination has to be a proper binary referendum. It has to be a democratic event which produces a choice and a decision. A choice between the two options offered, and a decision as to the next step(s) in the process by which that choice is implemented.
This de facto referendum would not function as a means of settling the constitutional issue. I suspect there are people out there (waaay out there!) who thought it might. The less said about them, the better. It wouldn’t work with a Scottish Parliament election. It would be even less effective with a Westminster election. The referendum proposed by Nicola Sturgeon for 2023 which she invited the UK Supreme Court to block wouldn’t have served as a proper constitutional referendum. Neither would a Section 30 referendum. In fact, there is not now and never has been any plan or proposal that would constitute a sufficient test of the will of the people in the matter of Scotland’s constitutional status. As far as Scotland’s cause is concerned, we’ve all just been farting around for the last decade or so.
The extraordinary Scottish Parliament election as a de facto referendum straw was just one of many straws being clutched at by those who aspire to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. As we shall see, it wasn’t even a real straw. Which hardly matters as the whole cunning plan has been knocked back by the SNP/Scottish Government. No surprise there!
We can speculate. What else is there to do. It’s not as if there’s a campaign going on. We can speculate about how things would have turned out if the whole dissolve the parliament and force an election then pretend it’s a referendum thing had happened.
First off, we would all have been obliged to vote for the SNP. We would have no choice. The shallow-minded SNP-haters will be jumping up and down at this. Unfortunately, they can’t jump up and down and think at the same time. So, they’ll never get it. Independence supporters would have had to vote SNP because that is the only vote that would count as a Yes in the de facto referendum bit of the election. You could vote Yes by voting for other parties. but those votes wouldn’t count. Actually, that’s not true. They would count. But as deductions from the Yes total, not additions to it. If you’re not too preoccupied with jumping up and down, think about it.
When the election is over, only one party will be the party of government. There might be another arrangement with the SGP, but that is unlikely. Because the referendum bit would have to work rather like a supermandate. What would constitute a Yes vote would be a working majority for the party of government with over 50% of the vote on both ballots. Achieving a Yes vote in the pseudo-referendum would require the same voting strategy as would be required to create a supermandate. But without the mandate.
The party of government would be the SNP. There’s no point in even discussing any other possibility. To have a chance of getting any other party in as the party of government would demand impossibly complex tactical voting on a scale that’s as good as impossible to achieve. And the risk would be great. Because it wouldn’t just be a case of getting this other party into government but getting them in with a supermandate. The chances of achieving that are far too remote for any sane independence supporting elector to take the chance. Especially as every vote for another party would be a vote deducted from 50% that would need to go to the winning party. To do anything other than vote SNP would put the whole de facto referendum project at risk.
The outcome would be another SNP government with Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister enjoying a much stronger position that she held before. She would have the biggest mandate to pursue independence ever. And she would be even more able to use that mandate as she sees fit. The outcome of a de facto referendum disguised as a Holyrood election could only be to replicate the situation we have now, but with Nicola Sturgeon having even more control. And with Nicola Sturgeon still committed to the Section 30 process.
Unless that SNP/Scottish Government was elected on a #ManifestoForIndependence! Absent a manifesto commitment such as I urged the Yes movement to force on the SNP for the 2021 election, it would just be more of the same.
The Yes movement declined to get behind the #ManifestoForIndependence last time. I see no reason to suppose it would be different if there was another Holyrood election next Spring.
All in all, it’s probably better that the de facto Holyrood referendum/election isn’t happening. Let’s see if we can find some real straws to clutch at.
The featured image is Clutching at Straws by Dave Crow, and that is all I know. I’d love to be able to give the artist a better acknowledgement but I have been unable to find any information beyond what might be gleaned from the link accompanying the image. You can see why I couldn’t resist using it.
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7 thoughts on “A straw to clutch”
An excellent article, and an excellent cartoon – a superb metaphor for anyone who believes that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are the ones who will deliver independence.
I haven’t yet seen a single person who is unhappy with plan B say they’d prefer a Holyrood election as the vehicle and then they’d fight it like a regular election.
The MFI or some single issue pro Indy manifesto is a prerequisite for a plebiscite election, otherwise it’s not a plebiscite election. The venue is irrelevant, and anyone talking about such an election with anything other than a one line manifesto is at it.
A referendum just isn’t happening. The Scottish parliament isn’t suddenly going to get up on its hind legs and declare itself anything either after some huffy emails. Not without a rocket up it. So behave with that nonsense. All that’s left to us is an election. “Us” being normal people who actually give a shit. It’s a crappy choice but that’s that. And since that’s that then you pick the better of the two crappy options underneath it.
The problem with plan B isn’t the venue. Or the franchise. Or the manifesto. Or what it amounts to or doesn’t. The problem is that the SNP is barely interested in it and barely concealing it’s lack of interest in it too.
Why they insist on a remote WM election as the vehicle, in which Scotland would be starved of more oxygen than usual, and will drag some god awful “extraordinary” but ordinary manifesto out their arse for it, is to bake in multi faceted deniability of what results do and don’t mean that wouldn’t exist if a Holyrood election was used.
It’s much harder to back away from a commitment that members elected to a place will then act like that place is sovereign.
I’m not surprised you “haven’t yet seen a single person who is unhappy with plan B say they’d prefer a Holyrood election as the vehicle and then they’d fight it like a regular election”. I doubt if anyone could be stupid enough to match that set of criteria. Although I know there are a few who will see that last statement as a challenge. Take the criteria individually or in some less constraining combination, however, and they will be met by a great many people. There are plenty of people who are unhappy with the whole idea of a plebiscitary election. Mostly with good reason. There are lots of people who, although unhappy with the whole idea of trying to pretend an election is a referendum, yet see the better sense in using a Holyrood election rather than a Westminster election.
Nobody, regardless of how happy or otherwise with a plebiscitary election, says it should be fought like a “regular” election. Because that would be a contradiction in terms. It would be oxymoronic to talk either for or against a ‘de facto’ referendum while saying it shouldn’t be fought like a ‘de facto’ referendum. The problem is that it will only be the SNP and, perhaps, other pro-independence parties that will be doing the pretending. The British parties and the British media will do their utmost to make it like the most “regular election” in all of history.
This is just one of the reasons why, regardless of how happy or otherwise with a plebiscitary election, many (most?) people see that it is vastly more sensible to use a Scottish Parliament election. The franchise issue is much more significant than you seem to suppose. But the clinching argument for not using a UK general election is that it would be very much easier for the British to bury the whole constitutional issue under a mass of policy topics. It is, in principle, entirely possible for the British media to go through the entire campaign without once even mentioning ‘de facto’ referendum or plebiscitary election or for that matter independence.
I am not opposed to a plebiscitary election. My issue with the idea is that it could not possibly be definitive. It would not settle the matter. The process subsequent to a Yes vote would still come to the same point every other ‘route’ does. The point at which the Scottish Parliament is required to do something that will be deemed ‘illegal’ by the British state. There is no workaround for this. The ONLY way the Scottish Parliament can acquire the powers that it needs in order to complete any process for restoring Scotland’s independence is to TAKE that power.
It is inevitable that we arrive at this point. So why not avoid delay by taking the shortest possible route? Why not go straight to the place you’re going to end up no matter which path you take?
The argument that Scotland has to be seen to have tried every ‘legal’ route is a nonsense. There is no ‘legal’ route to independence. There never has been. There never could be. Anything that puts the Union in jeopardy will be deemed ‘illegal’ by the British state. The notion that the international community won’t understand this until we’ve jumped through every hoop the British state can put in front of us is not only insulting to the international community, it makes no sense because there is no limit to the number of hoops the British state can manufacture. Just as, given time, there is no obstacle they won’t put between us and our goal. Which is why we have to treat the constitutional issue as a matter of great urgency.
There will have to be a referendum. It will have to be entirely made and managed in Scotland. It will have to be recognisable as a formal exercise of our right of self-determination. It will have to be decisive and conclusive. Independence will only be restored by the Scottish Government acting through the Scottish Parliament with the consent of the Scottish people. This necessarily implies that the Scottish Parliament must assert its exclusive competence in all matters relating to the constitution. It must do so because this is the only way the people of Scotland can exercise the right of self-determination guaranteed under international law. That is the essence of #ScottishUDI.
If, in the meantime, we have to fart around with a ‘de facto’ referendum then it makes sense that it should be the best ‘de facto’ referendum we can contrive. That means it must be a Holyrood election. And it means that the election must be fought by all pro-independence parties on a #ManifestoForIndependence.
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A Holyrood election is to determine the government of a devolved Scotland. As such, any party fighting it, on whatever basis, is going to be asked questions on what policy it will implement on Health, Education, Policing, etc. And the electorate will want answers. It would be virtually impossible to fight it as a single issue, de facto referendum under those circumstances. It would be too easy for unionists to change the narrative and undermine it.
A Westminster election is to determine the government of the UK (though mostly England). As such, the SNP does not have to have a policy on anything other than independence. Any media questions on their Health policy (for example) could be brushed aside quite justifiably as nothing to do with them, allowing them to concentrate the election in Scotland on the sole policy of independence far more easily.
I get the franchise argument regarding EU citizens and youngsters. Its a valid point. But, more than anything else, we need to make sure the narrative of the election in Scotland is on independence and nothing else.
For that reason, I would prefer the Westminster election route. Though I would fight the good fight whether it was that or a Holyrood election regardless.
“…we need to make sure the narrative of the election in Scotland is on independence and nothing else.”
You explained yourself why that wouldn’t work. You seem to have forgotten the extent to which the media in Scotland is the voice of the British state. With a Holyrood election there might be a possibility of countering the British propaganda machine. With a UK election, the non-independence stuff would overwhelm the kind of campaign Sturgeon proposes ─ basically a repeat/continuation of the 2014 referendum campaign.
For what it may be worth, you are the only person I have encountered who prefers a Westminster election. And I encounter a lot of people.
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I come to my own conclusions Peter. I don’t look to the herd for my views.
But, to counter your reasoning with itself, if “the media in Scotland is the voice of the British state”, what does it matter what election is used? It will still use its resources to defeat the cause of independence.
With a Holyrood election, that would be easy. They would just concentrate ALL their resources on a whole raft of domestic issues in response to “unionist alliance” prompts and, before you knew it, independence would be only one of many issues people are voting on.
With a Westminster election, the Scottish media’s resources would be divided between the multilateral election in England and the unilateral one in Scotland. Unionists would be tearing strips off each other on-air, on multiple issues (none of which would apply to Scotland), on a nightly basis, to gain power in London, while indies could rise above the kerfuffle with their sole issue of independence.
It doesn’t really matter that Indy would get less media coverage than if it was a Holyrood election because the Union would be in the same boat. And what air-time Scottish Unionists got would have to be spent between countering each other and countering independence. Not so for indies. And think of all the delicious hypocritical views that would be highlighted in respect of what’s good for England
but somehow bad for Scotland …. in the middle of a “de facto referendum”.
And finally, despite your efforts to down play it, support for independence is in the ascendency right now. Under those circumstances, it is arguably convenient that the spotlight is not solely on that. Scrutiny, especially vexatious unfair scrutiny, is often the enemy of poll leads.