It sometimes happens that people get so involved with disputing the relative merits of different ways of doing something that the omit to ask whether the thing should be done at all. A case in point is the argument about whether a Westminster or Holyrood election should be used as a de facto referendum. Actually, it’s not much of a dispute. If there is to be a de facto ‘independence’ referendum then it is clearly better that this be a Scottish Parliament election. The franchise argument should clinch the matter even if nothing else does. The only thing Nicola Sturgeon’s choice of using a UK general election has going for it is the fact that it will come sooner than the next Holyrood election in 2026. And given the fact that there has been no planning or preparation for the proposed plebiscitary election, coming sooner may not be an advantage at all.
As has so often been the case, the proposal to use the next UK general election as an ersatz ‘independence’ referendum has all the hallmarks of an idea conjured from desperation, if not panic. An impression enhanced by the fact that the de facto referendum idea was ‘Plan B’ to the referral of the draft Referendum Bill to the UK Supreme Court (UKSC) ─ an act which amply demonstrated the dearth of strategic thinking going on in the SNP leadership.
Before proceeding any further, I should perhaps explain why I use single quotes when writing ‘independence’ referendum. The reason is that neither the referendum that was unsurprisingly slapped down by the UKSC nor the ‘Plan B’ de facto referendum are actually about independence. As was made very clear by the First Minister and others, the proposed referendum cannot lead to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. A Yes vote rather than being a vote for independence is merely a vote for yet another Section 30 request. In no meaningful sense is it an ‘independence’ referendum.
The SNP loyalists are, of course, in denial about this fact. Either that or they are perfectly aware the the proposed referendum is no more than a glorified opinion poll but are determined to deceive as many people as possible. Even many of those who see the pretendy referendum for what it is nonetheless seek to rationalise it with the argument that ‘every little helps’. That a Yes vote, even in a fake referendum, still aids Scotland’s cause in some unexplained way. Or there’s the argument that even if it does no good, at least it does no harm. This is just wrong.
I have frequently pointed out that there is no route to independence which does not pass through a point at which there is direct and all but certainly acrimonious confrontation with the British state. Confrontation in which the British state obviously has obvious advantages. The only significant advantage Scotland has is ability to choose the issue on which the confrontation takes place. We get to choose the ground on which the battle is fought. It seems to go without saying that Nicola Sturgeon is busy squandering this advantage.
When the draft Referendum Bill was referred to the UKSC, this was the Scottish Government inviting confrontation on that issue. This was a battle the Scottish Government was almost certain to lose. And a battle in which victory was, in any case, meaningless. There was absolutely no rational reason for doing this. There was absolutely no strategic thinking involved in the decision to do this. This was no more that Surgeon flailing around in a panic when faced with the need to do something ─ or appear to do something. The de facto referendum nonsense was tacked on after it was realised that the referral was likely to fail. But the de facto referendum is the same referendum as was proposed in the draft Referendum Bill trying to piggy-back on an election. Instead of being a pretendy referendum that at least looks like a referendum it is a pretendy referendum that doesn’t look anything like a referendum. Am I supposed to get excited about this?
It may be said that Sturgeon’s ‘plan’ represented confrontation of a kind. If it did, it was the wrong kind. Only the conclusive confrontation matters. The final confrontation. Every failed confrontation in the interim undermines our ability to prevail in the ultimate confrontation. With every failed confrontation, something is lost. For example, prior to the referral of the draft Referendum Bill it was perfectly possible for the Scottish Government to steer that Bill through the Scottish Parliament. After the judgement of the UKSC, that ability is lost. If there was to be confrontation on this piece of legislation, how much better that the legislation be presented as having been passed by the Scottish Parliament? If the anticipated finding was supposed to demonstrate something about the nature of the British state and its attitude to Scotland’s democracy that some people were supposedly still unaware of, how much more powerful would that demonstration have been if it was an Act of the Scottish Parliament that was at issue rather than merely a draft government Bill?
Choosing the wrong ground on which to fight can be very costly. Choosing the ground for the wrong reasons will almost inevitably lead to choosing the wrong ground. Nicola Sturgeon’s choices are not those of someone prioritising Scotland’s cause.
What, then, is the correct ground on which to fight? Given the choice of issues on which to confront the British state, which would be selected by a government prioritising the restoration of Scotland’s independence? What are the criteria for such a choice?
I would suggest that the criteria for choosing the issue on which to confront the British state should align with the criteria for the kind of referendum we need. That referendum should be an impeccably democratic event which stands as the exercise of our right of self-determination. This means the referendum must be binary. It must be decisive. It must be conclusive. It must offer a clear choice between two options which are discrete, defined and deliverable. The outcome must be not just a result but an unequivocal decision as to what ensues.
A de facto referendum does not meet these criteria. The question of whether the British state should permit a referendum is not the issue which aligns with the criteria for a ‘proper’ constitutional referendum. Regardless of how many erroneous or subsidiary issues we confront the British state on, eventually we must come to the one essential issue. All the rest is simply depleting our resources for no possible gain. That essential issue is the issue of competence. That is the issue on which all imaginable ‘routes’ to independence converge. The big question of who decides ─ Westminster or Holyrood?
There is no point in asking the British government or its institutions where the power to decide resides. How else can they possibly answer but to insist that power is theirs? The notion that the British are ever going to concede that ultimate power is not theirs is beyond naïve. It is insane! And yet that is the basis of Sturgeon’s whole approach to the constitutional issue.
Rather than asking if the Scottish Parliament has the competence to hold a pretendy referendum, a nation confident of its claim would proceed on the basis that its parliament has the competence to determine all matters relating to the constitution status of the nation. That is the issue on which the British state must be confronted. It is the issue on which the British state will have to be confronted if Scotland’s independence is to be restored. Our independence cannot be restored unless and until this issue is resolved. All other confrontations are merely skirmishes which leave us exhausted for the ultimate confrontation. Sturgeon’s every choice since becoming First Minister has been about avoiding and deferring the only confrontation that matters.
A de facto referendum using a UK general election is a very bad idea because it is entirely the wrong ground for the fight and ground on which we would probably lose. A de facto referendum using a Holyrood election is only a slightly less bad idea because it is still the wrong ground and while we might win, we would gain nothing meaningful and would still have to face the final confrontation.
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