What is going to happen with the indy ref? And why did Theresa May call the 2017 general election?
Theresa May didn’t call the 2017 general election to strengthen her majority – she already had a working majority of 17 seats. And she didn’t call it to weaken Labour – Labour was weak enough. In fact, that was the problem. Labour’s job – from the Conservative perspective – was to contain the SNP in Scotland, and Labour wasn’t doing that. But Scottish independence on the back of Brexit would be a disaster for the Conservatives, since the loss of Scottish resources could lead to the annihilation of the neo-liberal dream. So they needed to get into Scotland, win the seats that Labour wasn’t defending, demolish the SNP, and squash the independence movement for ever. They threw at it money and data: data to identify target voters, and money to inundate them with leaflets. And they nearly succeeded: the SNP lost more than one-third of its seats (21 out of 56), its vote-share went from one-half down to one-third (50% to 36%), and Alex Salmond was out. They didn’t reach their goal – the didn’t quash the SNP, or demolish the independence movement, and polls show that support for independence continues to hold up – but they sowed misery and dismay through the upper echelons of the party. They even left some prominent party members brainwashed into believing May’s mantra that “now is not the time”.
I’m indebted to the blogger at A Wilderness of Peace for the above analysis of this election, which I find convincing. But what has it to do with the indy ref? The answer is that it gives us a pointer to the UK government’s likely attitude to the first port of call in the independence journey, namely Section 30 permission to hold an indyref. Other things we need to factor in are what to do if permission is refused, and the SNP’s constant prediction stating that “Scotland will not be taken out of Europe against its will”.
So this is where I think we are now:
- The UK government will not grant a Section 30 order. David Cameron agreed to one in 2014 because he thought indy would lose, and that that would remove independence from the agenda. That’s no longer the case. The 2017 general election didn’t demolish the indy movement, and the UK government isn’t fool enough to believe the mainstream media’s constant burble that the people of Scotland don’t want another indyref (they jolly well do). No way will they now see a Section 30 order as a risk worth taking.
- The First Minister has said, pretty well unequivocally, that she won’t mount a referendum without UK agreement. There are obvious tactical risks in doing so (the opposition will make hay with the Scottish Government for allegedly exceeding its powers, an anti-indy boycott could deprive the result of authority, a challenge in the Supreme Court could delay the whole thing), but surely the real point is that it wouldn’t achieve the independence movement’s, and more particularly Nicola Sturgeon’s, overriding strategic priority. This is that independence, when it comes, must be with the consent of the whole country; the last thing we need is a vicious campaign like the EU referendum, that leaves a country irreconcilably divided and bitter. There’ll always be a hard core of bigots, of course, and for some the consent will be grudging, but we must leave every voter in no doubt that the issues have been fully and fairly debated, and that this is what we’ve agreed to do as a nation. That can take time. Phantom Power’s recent report on Norway set out how Norwegians reach consensus by debate before doing anything at all, and “it took us forty years to build an airport”. Let alone a new country.
- If a Section 30 order is off the table, and the Scottish Government will not mount an independence referendum without one, that looks like the end of the road. It leaves only the option of UDI (which can be dressed up in various ways, but is still UDI). Given that we need to build a consensus, however, UDI would be catastrophic. So it really is the end of the road, isn’t it? Well, no, if we listen to what our politicians have been saying, and perhaps it isn’t.
- “Scotland will not be taken out of Europe against its will”, they say constantly, turning the issue into one of EU membership, rather than one of Scottish independence. So the next Scottish referendum will not be solely about independence, it will also be about the EU, and the two issues will be bundled together. “Should Scotland join the EU?” would be a good first shot at a question. We all know that Scotland can’t join the EU without first becoming independent, so the question is a proxy for that. And it’s difficult for the UK government to forbid us to ask that question, since they asked it themselves in 2016. Also, there are further factors that make it attractive to bundle the two issues together:
- It acknowledges both the conditions set out in the 2016 mandate: “clear and sustained preference for independence” and “material change of circumstances”;
- It makes victory wholly attainable: 62% voted to Remain in 2016, and that figure has almost certainly increased since then;
- If the 38% Leavers boycotted the referendum, that still wouldn’t be enough to cast doubt on the result.
The clincher, of course, is that if we can run the campaign like we did in 2014 – that is, as a largely straight campaign that engages people with the issues, rather than like the EU referendum, which was based on all sorts of make-you-boak nastiness and lies – then we place anti-indy in a deep cleft stick. The only argument they have for keeping the Union together is that England needs Scotland’s wealth, and that’s the one thing they can never admit. So it looks like our hands are full of aces here.