The UK is a voluntary union but the Scottish parliament cannot call an independence referendum without Westminster’s approval.
The UK government and the main opposition party both refuse to countenance a referendum in the immediate future or even in the medium term nor will they say when or under what conditions they would agree to a second independence referendum: ‘Is this a voluntary union – discuss’.
What is clear about the UK union is that it is a union dominated by England. The Tory government is only in power because it got a majority of the 2019 vote in England – not in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. A future Labour government may well get a majority in England and Wales, but it can only hope to increase its MPs in Scotland from one to perhaps, at best, a dozen. And Brexit went ahead due to the votes of England and Wales.
Currently, Labour looks set, according to the polls, to make it to a majority at the next general election without needing a big swing in seats in Scotland. Labour’s policies are focused on England – whether on Brexit (to be improved), constitution (Gordon Brown will tell us the answer), migration (control it more) or many other issues.
Of course, politics is a dynamic affair. Some Labour voices suggest sotto voce that in a second Labour term it could be possible to discuss rejoining the EU single market but that must be denied now. And Keir Starmer insists he wouldn’t do a deal with the Scottish National Party, but he might have little choice. And once Gordon Brown’s constitutional wisdom is delivered is that really going to be introduced with no choice in Scotland between the status quo, Brownian changes, or independence?
Nicola Sturgeon responded rapidly to the Supreme Court decision, doubling down on her June announcement of turning the next general election into a quasi-referendum, with a special SNP conference for (presumably early) next year to decide exactly what that means. Meanwhile, a Channel 4 news poll, on the afternoon of the decision, found 50% would vote for the SNP at the election if it was a vote for independence with 33% against and 16% don’t knows. That’s striking and it’s not in line with recent polls that hover around the 50:50 mark, so upcoming polls will be closely watched.
Beauty and the Beast: election as quasi-referendum
The beauty of the general election as quasi-referendum is that no-one can stop you – not the opposition parties in Scotland, not the UK government, not the Supreme Court. If that’s what your manifesto is going to say, that’s up to you.
The word ‘quasi’ here is doing a lot of work. What will the SNP or other parts of the independence movement say that means, what will voters decide it means, the media and the opposition? And what will observers, not least in the EU, think it means when they’ve been told repeatedly by the Scottish government that any move to independence will be legally and constitutionally sound.
The SNP has not, of course, suddenly decided it’s in the business of a unilateral declaration of independence. The election as quasi-referendum is a political strategy. How it’s meant to work is an open question. Will a 50.01% vote for pro-independence parties at the general election mean the SNP demands the opening of independence talks with the new UK government? Or would it demand another referendum since there is a demonstrated, democratic majority for independence?
The political clout of the result, if over 50%, will be higher, the bigger the majority. And if it’s under 50%, say 49.99%, the pro-union parties will say: ‘well see, there isn’t a majority for independence’. And the SNP will not have an obvious immediate strategy with which to respond to that. Still, nor is it obvious, despite the fears of many on the independence side, that a 49.9% for independence result means that independence is over for decades (as in the Quebec example). If, a few years later, there was sustained 60% support for independence is that really going to have no political traction?
Overall, in a voluntary union, where the exit door is shut for an indeterminate length of time, presenting an election as campaign for independence has a lot to recommend it: a quasi-referendum for a quasi-voluntary union.
But it’s also risky. And so, within hours of the Supreme Court decision, some in the independence movement were debating if it shouldn’t be the next Scottish parliament election, with its wider franchise (over-16s and EU citizens) that should be the quasi-referendum (with possible ways to provoke an early Holyrood election also under discussion). Others were debating whether, instead of the special SNP conference called by Sturgeon, there should be some form of Scottish constitutional convention, ensuring wider participation across the independence movement not just top down control – a good idea, but also thorny not least in terms of the very small but determined to be loud presence of Alex Salmond’s tiny Alba party. An election as quasi-referendum, with Westminster seats being contested, is not as easy to run as a grassroots campaign as the 2014 referendum was. There is much to consider.
Opposition parties inevitably, as is their right, insist that they will fight the election on UK domestic issues, especially the cost of living crisis while also underlining that votes at an election can be for a range of reasons and that interpreting a majority for the SNP (and Greens and perhaps Alba) would not be easy. That’s called getting your excuses in early. And is rather forgetting that a lot of people voted for Brexit in response to the Tory government’s imposition of austerity as much as for any urgent wish to leave the EU.
Ideas or process?
One of the striking things about the first couple of days of reaction to the Supreme Court judgement is the rapid, intense focus on the dynamics of the process of the quasi-referendum. It’s already created a sense of momentum that has been almost entirely absent from the three policy papers that the Scottish government has published since the summer, starting to set out their case for independence (several papers rather than one white paper as the goal).
There’s a warning in that. The political goal in getting to a really significant, high impact, shift-the-dial, pro-independence result at an election is surely to get support up to 55%-60% and keep it there (not impossible: independence was polling at those levels in the second half of 2020). But those levels of support are not likely to come in response to the SNP, and independence movement, either debating process or simply banging the absence of democracy drum.
Sustained support for independence means having, and communicating, a serious, dynamic, comprehensive and understandable case for independence – the benefits it will bring, the ways of dealing with the costs that will be there too in transition. Yet the Scottish government’s recent approach (hardly ‘strategy’) of publishing three policy papers, including on the economic case for independence, but then choosing not to follow up with a whole range of speeches and events using all their politicians and supporters, online debates, media articles and more, is a strange one. It may betoken lack of confidence in the arguments, a fear of headlines on the border or the euro or a Scottish currency devaluing against the British pound.
But this quiet, inactive approach may also be deliberate as well as fearful. Does the SNP really look at an independence referendum or quasi-referendum just as it looks at elections i.e. a 6 week campaign, energise the public, don’t get into too much detail, and fingers crossed? It seems it may do. And yet, building political momentum for independence both to take support substantially over 50% and to pressurise the UK government, and to make independence itself successful, surely needs the Scottish public to swing decisively towards it in a sustained way.
This is not to argue for introducing new thresholds for independence in any future referendum, should one be allowed. It’s about creating a genuine, engaged, energised, clear will (that “settled will”) of the Scottish people – and avoiding a divided Brexit-type outcome.
And while there’s much, inevitably, to criticise, in the Scottish government’s papers, there’s plenty to applaud too. A democratic, independent Scotland in the EU, with an economy that is green and sustainable, not least through its competitiveness in renewables, a society that chooses a tripartite – government, unions, business – approach to its economic strategy, has a persuasive ring to it. And it’s an approach that is not going to be proposed in any similar way in the UK by Tories or Labour. But it’s not been picked up and promoted by the SNP – the paper is published, then left virtually on the shelf.
An Opposition of denial
Even so, what is clear, for now, is that the discussion and debate is on the independence side. Labour and Tories both want to avoid the debate and avoid a vote. They both support/accept Brexit. They are both focused on England. And they both think they can continue to get away with a nod to the idea of a voluntary union while refusing to discuss what the route to ending the union could be.
This is surely living on borrowed time. The independence debate is not going away. And polls show sustained majorities for independence in the under-50s. The continued, sneering dismissal of those who think independence can deliver Scotland a better future is a shabby and self-defeating politics (not least from those who once campaigned against Brexit but now are contemptuous of the entirely reasonable idea of rejoining the EU whether as the UK or as an independent Scotland).
Scotland, the Supreme Court says, cannot have a referendum without Westminster’s approval. But what the SNP, and others, put in their election manifestos is up to them. We’re on a path to a quasi-referendum. And Scotland will have its say.
Featured image of Rome demo on evening of UK Supreme Court ruling on Scottish independence referendum via Europe for Scotland
Andrew Anderson says
This makes the mistake of so many who speculate about an independent Scotland (for which I voted in 2014): it assumes that the SNP would form its government. Why should that be? Why would such a party be needed in an independent country? These are questions I’ve never had satisfactorily answered.
During the 2014 campaign, we made exactly that point to the public, Andrew. Once we’ve achieved Independence, after the time needed for transition, there will need to be a Holyrood election, to determine the government composition in an Independent Scotland.
That could be to the advantage to Labour & the Tories, if they would only drop their opposition to Independence.
They too could break free from London control, and that would then be their best chance to become a Scottish government. But they just don’t see it.
John Stuart Wilson says
The question I have never seen satisfactorily answered is why we should think a group of people who are more competent and intelligent will come along, oust them, and then clean up the mess they made.
Steve Turner says
100% agree with this. It’s a point I’ve made a few times on Twitter, but no-one’s picked up on it (probably because I have a tiny following! 😅).
There will be right wing, centrist, and left wing politics in an independent Scotland.
If Scottish Labour were smart, they’d come out in support of it and probably clean up, because the SNP are vulnerable.
However, the economic case is the thing that will sway fence-sitters. Unless a robust, inscrutable plan is put together I can’t see support getting to the consistent 55-60% magic figure that would give heft to the push for a legitimate referendum.
I’ve always believed in independence for Scotland, but I just feel those in power aren’t doing a very good job of promoting the vast opportunity it presents from Scotland’s citizens.
Given our resources and potential, this should be a fairly straightforward task.
Adrian Lea says
They would likely form the initial post-independence government, or part of it.
However, the SNP is a “broad-church” party on many other issues, unified by the independence issue, even if it has become more social democratic in nature in recent years. Hence, the tensions over other issues would become more salient after independence, as the party loses its “raison d’etre”, and there is likely to be a degree of realignment in Scottish politics, perhaps a fundamental one, especially within an EU context; mainly impacting the SNP, but affecting most other parties too.
I think that we may well see a splintering of the right, with part of the Tory party joining with further right elements from Reform and UKIP, to become a pro-UK, anti-EU party of British nationalists. The more moderate part of the Tories may join with a small part of the SNP to form a more Christian Democrat-style party, as exists in many northern European country. Much of the remainder of the SNP may join with the less Unionist parts of the Labour party to form a broader social democratic party. The anti-EU left may coalesce with Unionist elements of Labour to form a new party. The LibDems may attract small parts of the SNP and Tories in a new centrist party, but will essentially be much the same, as will, I think, the Scottish Greens. Such a realignment, involving several or all of my suggested changes, may transform Scottish politics, in line with what many Scots seem to want, and could happen in a relatively short period after independence.
Just my imaginings, but far from unrealistic I would suggest. Other permutations, of course, may also be possible.
David Gow says
Intriguing prospects tho9ugh the SDP and today Rejoin and Reform parties are njot good realignment precedents
Joseph La Piazza says
Quasi, a word from Latin into Italian, made it’s way into English and has as flexible a meaning in English as it does in Italian. There-in lies a problem, as the definition of quasi is not definitive- eg. Being partly or almost or apparently but not really or seemingly or hardly. All indefinite definitions of quasi.
My fear, as a Pro-Independence voice, is that by the time the general election materialises, the anti-indy section of the media may have spun the list of definitions of quasi towards more sinister adjectives preceeding the words Independence Referendum such as ‘tin-pot or banana republic’.
I was horrified in 2016 that Cameron allowed a 50+ per cent vote to decide the UK’s continuing or not, membership of the EU.
An issue of such importance, over 40 years of UK membership, being decided on a 50/50 split was outrageous and incompetent. At the very least, 60/40 per cent of vote or more likely 70/30 should have been obligatory. So, in a similar vein, not wishing to appear a hypocrite, in an ideal world I would like to see that mirrored in any Referendum vote for Scottish Independence
However, I don’t set the rules and if Scotland does eventually obtain another Independence Referendum based on a 50/50 split, so be it.
Fay Young says
Thank you for a clear and balanced argument, Kirsty.
I confess I’m feeling very weary. Like so many others, I’m reeling from the lingering effects of a three-year pandemic, never-ending Brexit, soaring cost of living, along with health and energy crises, and the unimaginable tragedy of Ukraine. (Who could have imagined an early 20th century war in the 21st century?)
All this global suffering interlinked with the climate crisis right here on our doorsteps. For me, the urgency of the constitutional issue comes rather lower and, I fear, distracts attention from immediacy of vital issues that our Scottish government is equipped to deal with here and now.
I understand that many other people feel differently, emotionally, culturally and politically, about Scotland’s right to hold a referendum.
I fear continuing division, a deepening of the rut we’ve been stuck in since the first referendum campaign began in 2012.
So I feel your well reasoned argument makes a crucial point about how the next referendum might be framed, fought and the result accepted.
“This is not to argue for introducing new thresholds for independence in any future referendum, should one be allowed. It’s about creating a genuine, engaged, energised, clear will (that “settled will”) of the Scottish people – and avoiding a divided Brexit-type outcome.”
How to avoid Brexit-type outcomes? That surely depends on avoiding a Brexit-type campaign? This will require extraordinary selfless non tribal leadership. What are the chances in today’s Scotland?
Fay I totally agree with you on feeling weary. I feel worn out at times with everything that’s going on. I think the thing to remember is that all these things you mention are not separate from the constitutional issue. In fact, the majority of people who want independence is so these things can be addressed. The current UK government is never going to help with the cost of living crisis. In fact they are the main cause of it as all economists have told us. They will never deal with the climate crisis as the people who benefit from fossil fuels and environmental destruction are the main donors to their party. I do not see Labour as any viable alternative as they have also accepted Brexit which we all know as a disaster. If we want to change all of these things then we must break away from the UK which is clearly now a failing state. Only then can we progress and start addressing these very concerning issues.
Andrew Anderson says
I don’t know who “we” is. The SNP has made it clear that it has no intention of disbanding if Scotland becomes independent. Do you know something different?
You’re right about other parties, but haven’t I think considered what a Scotland without the SNP would be like. Also, have you taken on board that the government of an independent Scotland would decide, among other things, what its currency should be, its macroeconomic and fiscal policy, its membership of international organisations etc? It’s absurd for the SNP to talk about what would happen after independence, unless you assume that (a) there would still be an SNP and (b) the vast majority of those supporting independence would want that SNP to form the government. With the existential question answered, it would be up to the new government and parliament to get on with normal politics, which would of course have no need for any nationalist parties.
John Stuart Wilson says
The route to independence is still open. In the year 2034 or later, if polls are consistently showing support over 60%, ask Westminster for a S30 and hold a referendum, based on a White Paper that is more credible than the 2014 version.