By Alasdair Galloway
As I write this, I am listening with one ear to a dialogue of the deaf between Keith Brown of the SNP and Jamie Greene of the Scottish Conservatives, concerning the SNP’s newly adopted plan B. Greene, as a Tory so not a surprise, is a agin it on the grounds that we are right in the middle of a Covid pandemic. Of course, this is in some regards at least, risible. For one thing, even the SNP are not suggesting a referendum next week or even next month. One of their MPs Kenny MacAskill pointed out in a Wings’ article the other day that with the COP conference in November in Glasgow, the chances of a referendum this year are vanishingly small.
Of course, the pandemic (in which the London government has hardly covered themselves in glory) is just the latest in a long line of reasons to say “no”.
The classic is Theresa May’s “Now is not the time”, which raises the suspicion that it would be a cold day in Hell when it was the time.
Then there are the variants on “you’ve had your referendum”, pointing to the “settled will” of the Scottish people in 2014, treating democracy as an event rather than as a process.
Linked to this are the vacuous claims of “once in a generation”. One definition of a generation is 25-30 years, but it’s pretty clear that it’s a contended number. More importantly, the phrase is nowhere to be found in the Edinburgh Agreement. You will find a reference to the result being “decisive”, but the problem is that it wasn’t. The Unionist camp reckoned in 2012 that the vote would be a “walk in the park”. After all independence was said by Blair McDougall to have about 28% support. The whole exercise was to put Nationalism “in its box”. However, Alistair Darling said that if the Yes vote was 40% or more, it would not settle the matter – and it didn’t. Not really.
Then there are those who accept there will be a referendum, but want to put in such onerous conditions that a successful independence campaign is at best unlikely. One letter writer to the Herald has argued there should be a requirement of 66% of all voters (not just those voting) in favour, just like his Golf Club. The problem with this, of course, is that this is not the UK tradition which is 50%+1. The UK left the EU on a lot less than 66%.
Rearing its head is a Royal Commission to examine how the UK is governed. Royal Commission’s are great for those in power. If the critics moan, it is always possible to say you have appointed a Royal Commission. Ideally they report only after a decent period of time, by which time much of the heat might have gone out of the issue. Alternatively, having kicked the particular can down the road, it is only eventually that you have to address the matter, even if it means abandoning all the proposals of the Royal Commission. But of course, we already have something like that. In July 2019 Lord Dunlop was appointed to “produce an independent report into the UK Government’s Union capability.” Leaving to one side how far we can trust a member of the Conservative & Unionist Party to produce a report which is “independent” in any meaningful sense, by November 2020 Lord Foulkes was asking the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, when we might expect the report, and was told “by the end of the year” (ie 2020). In January this year, “The chairs of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, Scottish Affairs, Welsh Affairs and Northern Ireland Affairs committees at Westminster have written to Michael Gove seeking publication of the review and the government’s response by Thursday.”. Various proposals have been leaked – appoint a Union Tsar, move parts of Whitehall into the devolved nations – but earlier this month, we were told it had been “delayed”. We’ll see.
The core point from all of these is that none of them actually confront the issue of the possibility of Scottish independence. Some try to avoid it by coming up with increasingly fanciful justifications to refuse even a referendum. Others focus on a throw away phrase that is not in the Edinburgh Agreement, so lacks the force of law. There are a couple of references in “Scotland’s Future”, but usually by individuals who only believed nothing else in the publication. Perhaps not even the page numbers. So no referendum, but if there is one let’s make it unwinnable. If all that fails, we’ll have a Royal Commission, stuffed with Unionists directed to work out how to make the UK work again. All of them are fundamentally undemocratic being devices to prevent the electorate from giving an opinion via a referendum, or queering the pitch, or just putting it off.