The lack of performance artiste who goes by the stage name Boris Johnson has faced three big challenges since he became Prime Minister. To deliver that oven ready Brexit deal that he promised during last year’s General Election, to deal with the coronavirus epidemic, and to placate an angry and restless Scotland. He has utterly failed on all of them.
The pandemic has left the UK with the highest death toll in Europe and the worst affected economy. Johnson is now trying to get the public to accept that they can only hang out with six friends at once when he’s spent the last month telling them they absolutely have to get onto crowded commuter trains and buses and back into open plan offices so that they can buy Pret a Manger sandwiches or the country will die. So remember, if you’re in England don’t meet up in groups of six, unless you’re in Pret a Manger. The police in England will now have the power to break up gatherings of more than six parties, and especially dangerous parties. It would be great if that included the Conservative party.
The oven ready Brexit deal has turned out to be a lie, colour us surprised. The UK is now going where even Margaret Thatcher didn’t dare tread – ripping up an international treaty and showing itself to be an untrustworthy partner at the very point where the UK is desperately in need of allies and goodwill abroad. In 1975 Thatcher said, “In the same way that government and individuals should be bound by law so countries should be bound by treaties. Britain does not renounce treaties. Indeed, to do so would damage our own integrity as well as international relations.” Well, yeah. The UK is now on the brink of a no deal Brexit will will be a disaster for jobs and which will be a body blow to an economy which is already reeling under the effects of the pandemic. Additionally, the EU may seek to impose sanctions on the UK for its breach of international law. When you act like a pariah state, you’ll be treated like a pariah state.
Far from reconciling Scotland to Brexit, Johnson’s government have at every turn thrown fuel on the fire, enraging Scottish public opinion even further. The Conservatives have set out not merely to undermine the devolution settlement, but to destroy its very foundations. This is a party which constantly harps on about the importance of respecting the outcome of referendums, but which has not got the slightest hesitation in overturning the result of the 1997 devolution referendum, which was reinforced by the promises of the Better Together parties in the 2014 referendum.
Devolution became the settled will of the people of Scotland following the long bleak years of the Thatcher and Major era. It was seen as a means by which Scotland could provide itself with a modicum of protection from the worst excesses of Conservative rule. We can now see that devolution cannot protect Scotland from a Conservative government which is prepared to ignore the rules, even to ignore the law. The Tories will destroy everything in their hell bent pursuit of a fantasy Brexit based upon a nostalgia for a British Empire which is – deservedly – long gone.
The devolution referendum of 1997 was a fait accompli. When it took place there was little doubt that Scotland was going to vote yes. We are not yet at that point with an independence referendum. If an independence referendum was held this week it would be closely fought and there would be considerably uncertainty about the result until the votes were actually counted. In 1997 there was massive public anger in Scotland about the way that this country had been treated by Conservative governments, and a determination that a political solution needed to be found. Scotland was in no mood to take no for an answer. This public determination and anger in Scotland was enough to overcome the deep seated reluctance of Tony Blair and the Labour party.
We’re going to need an even greater public determination and anger in order to secure Scotland’s independence. Despite those who demand immediate action, that widespread public anger and determination is not quite there yet. I really wish it was, but we have to deal with the realities of this country and not the Scotland of our hopes and dreams. We’re building a new house for Scotland here, and we need to build it from the foundations up. We can’t rush into putting on the roof before we’ve built the supporting structure.
For the past few months, on every single article on this blog, no matter what the topic, someone pops up to state – as though it were an established fact – that Boris Johnson will never consent to a Section 30 order. Firstly, it’s not a fact. Moreover those who make the assertion appear to have a far greater confidence in the ability of the Conservatives to resist Scotland than the Conservatives do themselves. We’ve only had consistent majorities for yes in polls for a few months yet already we can see the cracks appearing in the Conservatives’ resolve.
However tactically, campaigning on the basis that a Section 30 order will be refused weakens us in the longer term. Getting a Section 30 order is a matter of process. The key to independence however is strategy. The strategy is to gradually ratchet up the pressure on the Johnson administration. What really matters is not so much the response of Johnson to a demand for a Section 30 order, the important thing is the response of public opinion in Scotland to his refusal. The response of Scottish public opinion is also far more important than the response of Nicola Sturgeon, because it’s the first which will dictate the second. The Scottish Government can only respond strongly and decisively if it knows that it has the support of majority public opinion to embark upon alternative steps.
As supporters of independence we believe in the sovereignty of the people of Scotland. It’s for us, the people of Scotland, to decide if and when we want an independence referendum. All of us who believe in independence can agree on that point. Therefore we cannot, we must not, concede that Johnson has any right at all to tell the people of Scotland that we cannot have the referendum of our choosing. Yet when we bewail that he will never agree to a Section 30 order, that’s precisely what we’re doing. And that in turn sets up an expectation among the people of Scotland that Westminster has the right to refuse us. In so doing we undermine the public anger and determination that we require in order to take the next step – to challenge Johnson in some other way – because we have already set up an expectation of failure.
There are several routes to independence besides a referendum following a Section 30 order. However key to the success of all of them is that they must have the clear and explicit support of a majority of the people of Scotland. We may now have consistent majorities for yes in polls, but we cannot yet be certain that there is consistent majority support for routes to independence other than a referendum agreed in advance with Westminster. In order to ensure that we take majority public opinion with us, we cannot leapfrog steps, no matter how desperate we are to escape this Tory Brexit nightmare.
We are not there yet. If we lived in a Scotland where we had a representative media which truly reflected the political opinions of Scotland, we’d be independent already. If the Scottish Government was to press ahead right now, it would be slaughtered in the press. Any increase in deaths from the virus would be blamed on the “reckless and irresponsible” independence movement and the SNP. You can’t sell the vision of a better Scotland to the public when you’re being blamed for killing people.
A successful independence strategy must be based in the realities of the Scotland we actually live in, not the Scotland we hope to live in. There are many of us who now support independence, but this is a cautious nation. We have to construct a strategy that will enjoy broad national support, not one which appeals only to those of us who have been convinced of the need for independence for years.
For my own part, I do not believe that Johnson will easily agree to a Section 30 order. The British state is not going to make this easy for us. However if we cannot take majority public opinion with us at every step of the way, we will lose. We will only win our independence with a mass national campaign. You can’t have a mass campaign without the masses. We have the additional issue of building that mass campaign in a country where the mass media is overwhelmingly against us.
We cannot, we must not, concede that Johnson has any right at all to refuse a demand for a Section 30 order following the election of a majority of pro-independence MSPs standing on a platform for another referendum. Above all, this is a battle for public opinion. We need to ensure that people in Scotland are angered, infuriated, and made more determined if and when Johnson refuses a demand for a Section 30 order following a victory for pro-independence parties in a Scottish election where the issue of another referendum was key. We’re only making that harder for ourselves when we set up an expectation of failure. We’re going to need all the anger and determination that we can muster if an alternative is to succeed. The first step to winning is to refuse to concede that you can lose.
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