Charting a way forward

The SNP has announced a new date for the special independence convention which was originally scheduled to be held on March 19 but was postponed due to the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon. The event was intended to give SNP members the opportunity to decide how to proceed with achieving a vote on independence in the face of the UK Supreme Court’s ruling that the Scottish Parliament does not have the legal authority to hold an independence referendum without the consent of Westminster and the refusal of the Labour, Conservative, and Lib Dem parties to accept that the current Scottish Parliament has a mandate for an independence referendum despite the fact that the issue of another independence referendum dominated the last Holyrood elections and the parties opposing another referendum lost by a significant margin.

It has now become evident that the Westminster parties will only accept the outcome of democratic events in Scotland if they produce a result which is acceptable to them. We also see this in the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum in which Scotland’s resounding vote against leaving the EU has been discounted by both the Labour and Conservative parties. Had the outcome of the 2014 independence referendum produced a 55% victory for the Yes campaign, it seems clear with the hindsight of everything that has happened in British politics since then that the Westminster parties would have found some means, however dubious, of refusing to accept the result. They don’t call it perfidious Albion for nothing.

The SNP’s special independence conference will now be held in Dundee on 24 June at Caird Hall in Dundee. The previous conference had been due to debate whether the party should contest the next UK General Election as a de facto independence referendum, whether to use the next Holyrood election for this de facto referendum, or to adopt some other strategy for breaking the log jam of the refusal of the Conservative and Labour parties to recognise the Scottish Parliament’s democratic mandate for another independence referendum.

In an article in the National on Sunday, First Minister Humza Yousaf said that he would make an announcement shortly on a summer of independence campaign activity to take a positive message to every corner of the country. During his campaign for the party leadership he promised to set up regional assemblies across Scotland “to bring together and harness the energy of our members to discuss how we cross the line and win independence.” Work on organising these has been underway and an announcement can be expected soon.

Of course the usual suspects are unhappy, claiming that the Dundee event is only being organised in order to give the First Minister an ‘excuse’ for not addressing the AUOB march and rally being held in Stirling the same day, or that it is a ‘betrayal’ because the event is being billed as being “solely focused” on how to hold a legally-binding referendum, which some are taking to mean ‘how to extract a Section 30’ order from a Westminster that keeps saying no. Naturally supporters of other parties are going to attack the SNP, they have their own party agendas to promote.

However it means no such thing. SNP deputy leader Keith Brown, who made the comment about the event being solely focused how to hold a legally binding referendum, went on to add: “We have won election after election and have a cast iron mandate for a fresh independence referendum – but the Westminster system is refusing to respect Scotland’s democratic wishes. As the only mass membership political party in Scotland we are calling on our members – the lifeblood of our party and movement – to help us secure that key vote that our country needs.” He made no mention of going cap in hand begging for a Section 30 order, indeed his comments make it clear that he does not expect any such order to be forthcoming.

The Scottish Government’s independence minister Jamie Hepburn defended the decision to hold a special convention just for SNP party members and answering a question about the involvement of the wider independence movement said: “Of course, yes, the independence cause doesn’t belong to the SNP. It belongs to the wider independence movement. The SNP is part of the wider independence movement, and of course in advance of a General Election it is entirely right that we consider what our particular platform will be.”

There is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. As I pointed out above, I have no confidence at all in assurances from the Westminster parties that they will respect the outcome of any Scottish vote which does not give a result to their liking. Under what passes for a British constitution there can be no such thing as a legally binding referendum, and as such Keith Brown’s choice of phrasing was unfortunate. The 2014 referendum was not legally binding, the Conservative Government of the day merely made a political promise to respect the result. We have all seen what happens to Tory promises to respect Scotland. David Cameron’s government could not legally compel any future Westminster government to abide by his promise. This runs directly against the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of Westminster which is so fetishised by British nationalists. Indeed during an interview on Good Morning Scotland on Monday Keith Brown made clear that what the party was seeking was a lawful vote on independence.

In the UK there can only be lawful votes and campaigns in which all parties participate, and by doing so implicitly recognise their democratic legitimacy. What the SNP needs to bring about is a vote on Scottish independence in which the anti-independence parties participate and which the British Government cannot rule as being unlawful. It would certainly do so if Holyrood attempted to pass a bill to bring about another referendum. However the British state cannot rule that it is unlawful for the SNP and other pro independence parties to fight the next UK General Election or the next Holyrood election as de facto referendums, neither can it rule it unlawful for the SNP to make the transfer to Holyrood of the power to hold another referendum a condition of SNP MPs propping up a minority government at Westminster. Speaking on Sunday Jamie Hepburn insisted that using the next General election as a de facto referendum was still an option under consideration.

We are now making progress toward the SNP having a clear strategy for obtaining a lawful vote on Scottish independence, and despite the usual chorus of criticism that is to be welcomed.


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