Oooh Theresa’s not best pleased. And neither is Ruthie, Kezia, and a whole load of Unionist commentators. So that’s a result then. Project Fear is getting off to an early start. Sky News gave air space to that well known expert on Scottish affairs, Nigel Farage, who predictably railed against Nicola Sturgeon and pro-European Scotland as being one of the minor demons of Be’elzebub. It’s not clear why Sky News felt the need to give us Nigel’s view on Scottish matters, as there are more people in Scotland who believe that we’ve been visited by reptilian extraterrestrials than support Nigel’s party. Although to be honest, when Nige does make one of his rare forays north of the border to be heckled in an Edinburgh pub, it’s not inaccurate to describe it as a visit from a reptilian extraterrestrial. It is widely believed that Ukip’s sole Scottish representative David Coburn has a bit of a nerve complaining about immigration when he himself comes from Alpha Centauri.
The dust is starting to settle after the surprise announcement that the Scottish government is going to hold a second independence referendum. According to some reports in the Unionist press, Theresa May might decide to block another vote. I really hope that she does. There’s nothing that Scots love more than an arrogant middle class Tory who’s channelling Maggie Thatcher telling them what they’re not allowed to do and loftily informing them that she will decide on their future, not them. That’s a guaranteed means of boosting the Yes vote. Scots doesn’t have the word thrawn for nothing.
It’s more likely that Theresa will try to prevent another referendum until after Brexit is concluded and Scotland is out of the EU along with the rest of the UK. Scotland holding a referendum while the Brexit process is still going on would be a nightmare for her. Which is all the more reason why Scotland needs to do it then, and not just because it’s going to annoy Theresa, although there is a certain satisfaction to that. It’s not the business of the Scottish government to hold a vote on Scotland’s future when it’s convenient for a Tory Prime Minister who enjoys little support in Scotland. It’s the business of the Scottish government to hold a vote on Scotland’s future when it’s in the best interests of Scotland, and it’s clearly in Scotland’s best interests to have that vote at a time when it’s clear what sort of Brexit deal the UK is in for, but before we’ve been taken out of the EU against our will.
Theresa doesn’t want a Scottish referendum when she’s got her tiny Trumpesque hands full of Brexmess. It’s not just that it means diverting scarce time, energy and resources to fighting a battle in Scotland when she’s fully occupied trying to fend off the entire EU. It also means that she won’t be able to use Scotland’s resources and assets as bargaining chips in her EU negotiations. The EU isn’t going to be very impressed by a Westminster attempt to sell out Scottish fishermen in return for access to the EU for the financial sector in the City of London if they know that it’s quite likely that Scottish fishermen won’t be Theresa’s to sell out by the time negotiations are concluded.
She doesn’t want a Scottish referendum before Scotland has formally left the EU because it means that European citizens living in Scotland will get a vote. After the UK has left the EU, they won’t get a say on their own future or the future of the country in which they’ve come to live and with which they’ve come to identify. That’s a body of almost 200,000 New Scots who are most likely going to break heavily for Yes who will be unable to vote, and that makes it harder for the Yes campaign to reach a majority.
Westminster’s attempts to dictate the timing of the referendum must be resisted. Thankfully they can be. Theresa’s hand is nowhere near as strong as the Unionist media would like to present it as being. We’re told constantly that Westminster’s permission is required for a second referendum to be legally binding, and that’s true. A Section 30 order must be granted. Incidentally, if you want to know the difference between the EU and the UK in one sentence, that’s it. The EU can’t demand you ask its permission to leave, the UK does demand that you ask its permission.
However, and here’s the interesting bit, Holyrood only requires Westminster’s agreement in order to hold a legally binding referendum. It doesn’t require permission to hold a consultative referendum, which is essentially an exercise in asking the public their opinion. There’s no reason that Holyrood can’t ask the people of Scotland for their opinion on anything at all. Do you prefer Hellman’s mayonnaise or own brand? Do you prefer to jeer at Nigel Farage from a safe distance or do you like to do it close up and aren’t worried that he might open up his lizard alien jaws and swallow you? Do you prefer Westminster rule or independence? If it’s not a legally binding referendum, there’s nothing to prevent Holyrood pressing ahead with it irrespective of what Westminster says. And the thing about consultative referendums is that once they produce a result the result takes on a political imperative of its own. The EU referendum wasn’t legally binding either, but all we’ve heard ever since is the demand that the will of the people is respected.
The difficulty with a consultative referendum is that it’s possible that the Unionist parties might boycott it. That wouldn’t invalidate the result, but it would mean we’d have to work even harder to ensure a high turn out which gives a clear mandate for independence. However there is a nuclear option which doesn’t require Westminster’s permission, and which the Unionist parties cannot ignore. That’s to dissolve the Scottish Parliament and turn the subsequent elections into a plebiscite election explicitly fought on achieving a mandate for independence. In such an election, achieving a majority in Holyrood for pro-independence supporters would also mean achieving a mandate to negotiate independence.
This would require close collaboration between the SNP, the Greens, and other pro-independence parties and the broader Yes movement to put up a slate of Indy-supporting candidates in the election. Since it’s a vote for a Scottish government, the Unionist parties can’t boycott it, and Westminster cannot dictate the timing. It’s very much a last ditch strategy in the event that all else fails, and if May really is stupid and arrogant enough to imagine that she can dictate when Scotland can have its say or frame the question to her pleasing. What it means is that Theresa May cannot dictate the timing or the question for a second independence referendum. If she does, all she does is to make it less likely that the Unionists will win that vote when it finally happens.
Scotland will have its vote when it suits Scotland, and not when it suits Theresa May. There’s very little she can do about it, apart from rage and fury. There’s going to be plenty of that from the Unionists over the coming months, and it will signify nothing. The cards are in Scotland’s hands this time.
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