While the Scottish independence movement gets on with its favourite activity of accusing other independence supporters of pursuing the wrong tactics to get us independence, the Conservatives are quietly getting on with the meltdown that will eventually take us to independence. In an article in the Conservative house magazine The Spectator this week, (https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-union-is-in-graver-danger-than-ever) the publication’s political editor James Forsyth spells out Number 10’s plan to save the Precioussssss Union™.
Johnson is going to say no to another referendum. That’s it. That is the totality of the plan. This is a plan in the exact same way that a toddler having a tantrum has a plan to avoid time for beddy-byes. It’s not a plan, it’s a delaying tactic. Yet all it’s going to do is to make independence inevitable in the longer term.
Forsyth naturally dismisses the idea of a Scottish independence without Downing Street’s agreement. “No legal referendum can take place without Westminster’s consent,” he writes. But as this blog has written many times before, anyone who tells you that a referendum without a Section 30 order would be unlawful is giving you a political opinion, not citing a legal fact. Until the matter is clarified by the courts all we know is that there are plausible legal arguments both for for and against holding a consultative referendum without a Section 30 order. There is a very good argument that a consultative referendum without a Section 30 order would indeed be perfectly lawful.
Meanwhile Forsyth doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility of other routes to independence such as a plebiscite election in which the pro-independence parties stand asking for a mandate for independence itself, or a Scottish National Convention and the withdrawal of Scottish representatives from the insitutions of British government in order to provoke a constitutional crisis that would be impossible to ignore.
Neither does Forsyth consider the effect on Scottish public opinion of an unpopular Prime Minister who enjoys little support in Scotland vetoing the outcome of a Scottish election where the SNP has been elected with a majority to bring about another referendum. Although there are many in Scotland who look upon the prospect of a refusal from Downing Street to a Section 30 order with horror, even after a landslide majority for the SNP in the next Holyrood elections standing on a clear mandate for a referendum, it will ultimately play into our hands.
All that a refusal from Downing Street to concede that Scotland has the right to self-determination will achieve will be to form an equation in the minds of Scotland’s electorate between independence and democracy. It will tell the people of Scotland that the only way in which our democratic wishes can ever be respected is through independence. That will only serve to boost the desire for independence, and make what the Conservatives fear the most more likely to happen rather than less. It will boost support immeasurably for the Scottish Government to seek an alternative strategy to a referendum. In other words, what many in the independence movement regard as the trump card of the Conservatives will, if played, only make it more likely that Johnson will lose the game. Johnson will be seen by many in Scotland, even many people who do not support independence themselves, as directly blocking the exercise of democracy in Scotland.
Speaking as a campaigner, I relish the prospect of Boris Johnson saying no to a Section 30 order after the SNP has won a majority in Holyrood next year. It means that Better Together Mk II will no longer be able to maintain the fiction that the UK is a union of equal partners. It will have to defend a British Government which has vetoed – in the words of the Scottish Claim of Right – “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”. At one stroke this destroys one of the strongest remaining arguments of our opponents, the argument that Scotland is a voluntary member of a union. And if Scotland doesn’t have the right to decide for itself whether this “union” is in its best interests, then it is no union at all.
Yet saying no to another Section 30 order is all that the Conservatives have got. As Forsyth admits, those who campaigned most fervently in 2014 for a No vote are now in despair. He writes, “When I asked one of the most impressive figures from 2014 how things were going, the answer came simply: ‘It’s over. The horse has bolted.’” The Tories and their British nationalist allies in other parties know that they have no long term solution to Scotland’s dissatisfaction with Brexit Britain. All they have is saying no, and hoping that the independence movement will self-implode in the meantime. And of late the independence movement has been giving the British nationalists reason for some hope in that respect.
Although there are many in the independence movement who are worried and frustrated, our concerns are those of a movement which is trying to find the quickest and easiest path to victory. The worries and frustrations of the Conservatives are those of a British nationalism which doesn’t know how to prevent its ultimate defeat. All it has is a tactic for delaying the inevitable in the hope that something else might come along, some black swan event that could derail the independence movement for good. Yet nothing that they’ve pinned their hopes on so far has done the trick for them. Brexit didn’t do it. The Salmond trial didn’t do it. The coronavirus epidemic didn’t do it. And I firmly believe that the forthcoming parliamentary investigation into the Salmond affair won’t make a serious dent in support for independence either.
Forsyth notes that a Conservative party in Scotland which has fought the next Holyrood election on a campaign aimed squarely at preventing another referendum will find it far harder to resist demands for a referendum if the SNP wins a majority. The Tories will have gone down to a bad defeat on the policy which they’ll be hoping Number 10 implements for them. That makes a mockery of Scottish democracy, and that’s how it will be perceived by the Scottish electorate. Yet preventing another referendum is pretty much the sole policy that the Scottish Conservatives have got which is capable of giving them traction beyond that minority of the Scottish electorate which is in favour of Brexit and is also in favour of the Conservatives’ economic policies. Trying to avoid the constitutional issue in the next election is only likely to make the defeat of the Scottish Conservatives even greater than it otherwise might be, especially now that they’re led by the deeply uncharismatic and unappealing Jackson Carlaw.
The Scottish Conservatives are in a serious bind, and they know it. They can either campaign against a referendum and then find they have no basis to resist calls for one after they lose the election, or they can try to avoid constitutional issues only to find that they suffer an even heavier defeat. They have only one tactic for preventing a referendum and that is saying no to a Section 30 order. Yet if their boss in Number 10 plays that card it only makes independence even more likely. No matter which way they turn, they’re staring at ultimate defeat.
You think the independence movement has problems? It’s nothing compared to the existential crisis facing the British nationalists in Scotland. We’re debating how to get to victory. They don’t know how to avoid defeat.
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