The SNP is soon to choose a new Depute leader. To date much of the discussion surrounding the election has focused on the narrow question of when to hold an independence referendum, and which times would be more likely to secure an independence victory. On the face of it for a party which campaigns for independence, and which recently won the last Holyrood election on a conditional platform of next holding a referendum were Scotland to be dragged out of the EU against its will (something which is now happening) this question seems central. In my view however, it is a dead end, and something of a proxy for a far more important discussion.
To contextualise this discussion, The Edinburgh Agreement signed by both the Scottish and UK governments was secured by the Salmond administration. It consisted of the transfer of power from Westminster to hold an independence referendum. This legal transfer of power is called a Section 30 Order under the Scotland Act, which established the Scottish Parliament. Without that transfer of power formally under the law Scotland cannot hold legally binding referenda (on anything at, not least becoming an independent country). Prior to Salmond’s victory in securing this agreement, the Scottish Government had threatened to hold ‘an indicative poll’. There was debate at the time of the legality of this move. Indeed Gideon Osborne had been threatening to hold an independence referendum on the UK government’s terms (setting the question, time, voting franchise and so on). With the rapid centralisation of the police however this was no longer tenable, and in the end the UK government granted Scotland the Section 30 Order, calculating that with independence polling at around 25% at the time, that the risk of their defeat was low.
Following the UK Government rejecting all compromise positions put forward by the Scottish Government in the aftermath of England and Wales’ vote to catapult Scotland out of the EU, the Sturgeon administration has also sought a Section 30 Order. This is the origin of the “Now is not the time” patronising lecture given by Theresa May. In other words the Sturgeon administration does not currently have the legal power to hold a binding independence referendum, despite winning an election on just the terms we are experiencing. This of course is very frustrating, but the somewhat successful infantile tantrum of an election campaign fought by the Tories which reduced the number of SNP MPs, saving Theresa May’s skin in her ill fated Westminster snap election, has convinced the May regime that it does not need to and should not hand over this power to Scotland.
The Sturgeon administration could in theory repeat the Salmond administration’s tactic of threatening an indicative poll, however faced with a British Government on the ropes, negotiating the impossible, with only Scottish oil and gas as its remaining hard exports, once the great harrowing that is Brexit is complete, and in a context where support for independence generally hovers above the 45% secured for it in 2014, this could prove a very risky strategy indeed. Catalonia provides a salutary lesson in just how far a state Government can go (and generally get away it) in suppressing such indicative votes. Recent European history now shows us that those who would speak up in defence of smaller breakaway nations suffering political repression would be both few and far between, and largely ignored. There are sound reasons for the Sturgeon administration’s apparent caution.
In this context, facing an implacable but weak UK Government engaging in chaotic tantrums, with an opposition likely to form a new government, or at least for there to be a change of leadership, alongside demographic change leading to a slow rise in support for independence over time voices around the SNP Depute election like Pete Wishart have argued that it is better to wait for more favourable times to seek an independence referendum, rather than go down the potentially very hazardous road of launching an indicative poll in the here and now. It is now too late for the Sturgeon administration to pull off a referendum before Brexit has taken place. We may take this as a sign that the SNP leadership as it is currently comprised tacitly agrees with the Wishart analysis. An infuriated section of the SNP and YES movement grassroots (which has largely been implicitly asked to do nothing between election campaigns) has decried this calculus as nothing short of a sell out. In reality tho the Sturgeon administration’s error lies elsewhere, and this debate, vocal and terse tho it is, is completely mislocated.
Sturgeon and the SNP leadership are right to be cautious, but they have for the entire time of Sturgeon’s leadership disdained movementism. This has been disastrous. For a leadership that came into power on the back of mass rallies in Scotland’s largest venues, not once since has the party ever directly invoked turnout for a political point, other than canvassing for elections or the now largely forgotten survey. Meanwhile YES events have continued, often without purpose, direction, a demand or a target, and often alongside accompanying statements from SNP politicians decrying them in some form.
This policy more than any other is self-defeating, and the subject requires a wider analysis than there is time for here. However faced with the May regime’s attacks on the devolution settlement, and its total hostility to the granting of a Section 30 Order, it should be obvious that what is urgently required is a visible demonstration of bias, aimed against those particular autocratic and anti-democratic acts by the widely reviled UK Government. To a certain extent grassroots anger (of the “use the mandate” variety) is a reflection of this dynamic. Faced with near constant attack on our rights and freedoms, the SNP leadership still shows little sign of mobilising its forces to contest or counteract this pressure. Instead it appears from the outside peering in, to look to a future that is the result of political progress, where demographics have shifted in our favour and what was once an intractable problem (the Section 30 Order) is negotiated away with future electoral mandates and a change in UK leadership.
The trouble is that the myth of political progress is just that. There is no law that says as young people get older and more young people are born that demographic shift will necessarily lead to an independence majority. That is how things look at present, but it’s important not to turn this into some kind of secular rapture. Things can change. As it becomes harder to retire in Southern Spain and Southern France, Scotland may yet play host to increasing numbers of upper middle class and Thatcherite English pensioners which could yet swing independence bias the other way. People of talent held hostage to an English Nationalist lost decade of post Brexit economic decline may yet choose to emigrate. Perhaps neither of these things will happen, but you can’t lay faith in things which you don’t control, and the most obvious thing to do is to take control.
Rather than obsessing about the date of a referendum, the campaign for our rights and political freedom should be on, should be visible, should be on the streets. This is the critical mistake that is being made, and has been made, and it is the core question that the SNP membership should be focused on. We should, rather than be obsessing about things we cannot control, be determined on focused on things that we can, which aid our cause, persuade others, and place real pressure for once on our opponents. What we have in abundance more than any other force in Scottish society is the capacity to mobilise massive numbers of people to turn out to things that we organise, in almost any part of the country. We must immediately rebuild and foster movementism, and demand that Scots be given a choice about whether we suffer the Brexit self-imposed racist embargo. We need to start spelling out on doorsteps how independence can rescue us from decline and Nationalism. That campaign can and must be independent of the process debate, but crucially it’s also the one thing that can win us the process and secure a Section 30 Order.
At the moment the SNP leadership repudiates movementism of this nature, but this very silly, as it’s really the only control they can exercise over the situation, and if there is a question that matters most of all in choosing a Depute it is this one. Waiting for political progress to happen without an auger on that process is a bit like waiting for a secular version of the rapture and a UK government to grant us its blessing. Demanding that our Government launch an indicative poll, and then make some kind of Universal Declaration of Independence based on that is deeply foolhardy. Setting up a divide between these two polarised positions is a sterile and pointless debate, and one that avoids discussing the real questions facing our movement. It’s like watching two blind moles swinging at each other, both failing to recognise their only chance of progress lies in working together in a totally different way.