One of the results of the independence referendum is that it makes all of us, whether we like it or not, gradualists. Nearly all of you reading this will believe in the removal of Trident and in an end to elective wars against far-flung peoples; most of you also in a Scots republic with an elected head of state. None of those things will be happening in the near future.
That’s not to say that there are not interesting times ahead. Over the next few months and years there will be a struggle to devolve as much power as possible to Scotland, with the erstwhile Yes campaign on one side of the argument and the Westminster establishment on the other. The Conservatives will be keen to keep as much of Scotland’s oil income as they can in order to pass it on to their plutocrat friends in the form of tax cuts. The Labour Party will wish to retain its Scottish MPs as House of Commons lobby fodder, and those MPs will be happy to deploy esoteric arguments about the indispensable role of an increasingly attenuated pan-British welfare system in order to keep their snouts in the trough.
Deprived of its major weapon of an independence referendum, the Yes campaign will have to use alternative tactics: electoral pressure, yes; but also arguing from inside the system. Recently I read a biography of Daniel O’Connell, the great nineteenth-century Irish politician who delivered “Catholic emancipation”, the right of Catholics to sit in the Commons, but failed in his attempts to achieve the repeal of the Union with Ireland Act 1800. O’Connell was a wily barrister and always keen to remain on the right side of the law, even if it meant calling off unjustly banned events, disbanding his own organisation or meekly yielding to the indignity of a rigged show trial. He was also famed for his “monster meetings”, each attended by upwards of 100,000 people, which while peaceful carried with them an implied threat of mass action. The mass action that the Yes campaign can threaten is a second referendum, but only if it thinks it can win one. The coming period will therefore see a race to convince the public of the justice or injustice of the forthcoming devolution proposals.
Much has been made already of the circumstances in which another referendum might be called, one scenario being that England might vote to leave the EU but Scotland to stay in it. There is no guarantee, however, that the English will vote to leave, since presumably businesspeople and workers whose livelihoods depend on membership will campaign strongly to remain, as will many trades unions, whose attitude to the EU has been transformed since 1975. A second referendum may therefore depend on winning an argument about devolution, and since the “devo super-max” promised by Better Together is likely to be a lukewarm poultice rather than an out-and-out slap in the face, there is no guarantee of that either. Depending on how the likelihood of calling a referendum is phrased in the SNP manifesto, Westminster may refuse to play ball too, meaning that it would have to be held on an advisory basis. One obvious argument that the establishment would use against us is that the same question had been decided upon so recently.
There is an alternative route, however.
Devo max as those who actually study such things understand it is very similar to the position enjoyed by the Isle of Man, which through the Tynwald deals with everything save defence and foreign affairs. Putting to the people the question of whether Scotland should become a self-governing crown dependency is clearly very different from asking whether Scotland should become an independent country, so there could be no question of denying a referendum on democratic grounds. The issue of access to EU markets would be neutralised; the Isle of Man has full access for goods, and anyone with a British grandparent has access as a worker. In fact, we would even have our own passports. Another advantage is that, because there is already a territory with the status in question, everyone will be clear on what it means, and that it is a practical proposition. As we have seen, “devo max” can mean different things to different people, sometimes out of sheer badness, but more often out of ignorance or genuine disagreement. At times it can be like wrestling jelly.
And there is a precedent for a second referendum on a different question. In 1995, Quebec came very close to accepting a question on “sovereignty-association”. With luck, Scotland could do the same — and we got more support the first time round than Quebec.
The knock-on effects of crown dependency status would include losing Scots representation in the House of Commons and therefore what marginal — in fact, more or less illusory — influence we have on defence and foreign affairs. In my view, that loss would be more than compensated for by the competences and revenue streams accruing to a crown-dependent Scotland, which of course include the ability to set up an oil fund. According to mysociety.org, only 21 divisions out of the thousands since the Labour victory of 1997 would have gone differently if Scots MPs had been unable to participate, and some of those votes were on purely English issues. In the 1997-2001 Parliament, there would have been none at all.
The fact that there would no longer be any Scots MPs at Westminster would also mean that there would be no high-profile establishment politicians protecting their vested interest against the common weal by arguing against independence when — as will surely happen — the substantive question is put to the people again. The absurdities of crown-dependency status are many, including the lack of power over foreign affairs, but, like “English votes for English issues”, they are ultimately also arguments for full independence.
Another benefit of asking a question on crown-dependency status is that it to some extent circumvents Westminster by making a direct and highly embarrassing appeal to the monarch. Obviously, that is a distasteful tactic for democrats, but the Queen, who, purring aside, is supposed to be neutral, would find it harder to face down the democratic will of the people than the Tories and Labour are at the moment.
And, of course, it might never come to that, since Westminster could simply buckle under the pressure. A manifesto commitment to a referendum on crown-dependency status, effectively devo max + 1, may be the best weapon the Yes parties have to achieve devo max itself — and, probably quite soon afterwards, the independent republic that the people of Scotland deserve.