Independence-Lite: the Triumph of Hope over Reality
David Torrance speaking on Dragon’s Eye (at 17:42 minutes in) articulated his belief that the SNP’s aim is not independence but instead some form of looser union with England. He also believes that if it is a two question referendum then the choice will not be between independence and the Union but between some form of powerful Scottish parliament within the Union or the status quo. What is driving this idea that the SNP want independence-lite not full independence and that the SNP has become the Scottish Regional Party not the Scottish National Party?
I believe that there are two factors at work here, hope and a failure to understand the two very different routes which will take Scotland either to independence or to government under a regional parliament within the UK. The hope comes from a sense of Britishness and the idea that the SNP can’t really mean it. That independence is only a threat which is used, in the eyes of British nationalists, as a form of teenage threat which is at its heart a bluff. Unless you let me stay out till midnight I’ll leave home. Unless you let me redecorate my room in black I’ll leave home. Unless you give Scotland a powerful regional parliament we’ll leave the Union. The idea of Britain as a unified nation which is more than just a unified state is so strongly embedded within the British psyche that the SNP are regarded not as nationalists but as regionalists. I suspect that in the past the idea of an independent Scotland has been such a ludicrous concept for British nationalists that it has blinded them to the fact that the SNP is not a joke party in the vein of a Wessex independence movement or a Yorkshire independence party and that’s part of the reason why Labour in particular has failed to recognise the threat to their hegemony in Scotland and to find a strategy to keep the SNP out of power in Holyrood.
Now the SNP has won a majority in Holyrood things have changed and in the face of the promised independence referendum the only recourse for those who still find it hard to deal with the idea of an independent Scotland is to decide that the question is not really going to be about independence but about regional autonomy and so the concept of independence-lite has been born along with its sibling full fiscal autonomy and LabourHames fixation on federalism. That failure to grasp the concept of an independent Scotland has fuelled many a post and comment by unionists in which they ask the comfort question of, “What does independence actually mean?”, in the hope that the answer will be that it doesn’t mean what it means in the rest of Europe and that if they continually question what independence really means then eventually on some sunny fantasy day the SNP will turn round and admit that independence really just means devolution.
Quite apart from the difference in power between an independent parliament and a regional parliament, the routes to independence and to regional autonomy for Scotland within the Union are so different that the failure to understand that difference is again almost like a mental comfort blanket. There is a failure to understand that although independence and a strong regional parliament superficially look very alike the route to get to them is as different as they are.
If David Torrance gets his referendum with two questions on it which are not about independence but a choice between more powers for a regional Scottish Parliament or the status quo then who gets to decides on what powers are included in the referendum question because for a regional parliament that is the $64,000 question. Several scenarios present themselves:
1. If the SNP write the regional powers question, as it’s their referendum, and explain in the question that they want Scotland to have control over taxes such as oil revenues what will happen after the referendum if Westminster says something along the lines of, “We have noted the powers that you want but we never agreed to anything before the referendum and we just can’t give them to you”?
2. Or perhaps Westminster should write the question or provide the details of the proposed new powers for Scotland as they are the ones with the power to implement it. But what happens if they refuse to give Scotland its oil revenues under the proposed new regional Parliament and only agree to a set of minimal powers for the new Scotland which are not much more than the status quo?
3. Or perhaps it goes swimmingly. In some alternate universe all three Westminster parties agree to give Scotland a Rolls-Royce regional parliament which includes powers over everything but the kitchen sink and just ask for a proportionate share of costs from Scotland for foreign affairs and defence but in Westminster when the bill is presented the backbenchers revolt and refuse to pass it.
In all scenarios the question is what can the SNP do if Westminster points out that the Scottish referendum was nothing to do with them, writes in a minimal set of powers for a Scottish regional parliament or reneges on the deal and the answer of course is that it can do nothing. When the referendum is about a regional parliament unless the Westminster Government comes up with a bill which details all the powers beforehand then it is really just a ballot paper with a wish list on it. Once the Westminster Government comes up with the bill it still has to go through parliament which may be under a different government to the one who wrote the bill or it may not be to the liking of a lot of back-benchers on the day of the vote. Even if the Westminster Government comes up with a bill which can be voted on in a Scottish referendum there is no guarantee the bill won’t be just another smoke and mirrors Calman excercise.
If Scotland votes for independence then it has legal right to independence under Article 1 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Both read: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
And there lies the huge difference between a vote for independence and a vote for a regional parliament. On the ballot paper it’s pointless for the SNP to write a wish list for the regional parliament they want because a wishlist is all it would be without the agreement of Westminster to implement it. If the SNP want a regional parliament question on the ballot paper then they have to accept that Westminster defines what powers that parliament will get and that it is in the gift of Westminster to implement it and if Westminster changes its mind about the whole business then that’s it. The UN does not get involved in how countries rejig their local government.
This referendum is a chance to ask Scots if they want independence. If they agree then they have the right to take it. If the SNP simply ask for a regional parliament mark II then there a very good chance that Westminster will just write in Calman+ for the question and then just refuse to implement it fully anyway. The SNP’s only hope in that case is that they can get a majority in the next Scottish parliament to ask the independence question they should have asked in the first place. The idea that the referendum is not going to be an independence referendum is simply not tenable because the SNP will not control any part of the process of creating or defining the powers of a regional parliament and Scotland’s destiny will again be handed back to Westminster. It will not be a question of what Scots want but of what Westminster is willing to give. The only way to empower Scots and Scotland is to take the independence route which hands power back to Scots.