Holyrood election vs UK General election as de facto referendum, the pros and cons

One thing needs to be set out plainly right away. I, like I am sure the great majority of regular readers to this blog, want a vote on independence as soon as possible. Ideally I’d like it yesterday. The longer Scotland remains under the thumb of this despicable Tory government, the more suffering is caused and misery created.

The point however is to hold a vote that has the best chance of delivering the desired result. This is the Scottish independence campaign not the Scottish referendum campaign. There are those who appear to believe that all that needs to happen is for some clever clever constitutional wheeze to be implemented, or for there to be an immediate declaration of independence and assertion of Scottish sovereignty and Scotland will magically march to independence and international recognition. That’s not going to happen. It’s easy from within the confines of rock-solid personal support for independence to imagine that the same sentiment is widespread across Scotland and merely needs to be unleashed. Would that that were true. Unfortunately we live in a nation with a wildly skewed media landscape where pro-independence voices struggle to be heard and anti-independence arguments are amplified and propagated even when they are without merit.

The really remarkable thing here is not why is support for independence not in the high 70s, but rather that support for independence remains as high as it does despite the relentless and unceasing British nationalist media campaign against it and the immense difficulties in getting the independence message across. Our real battle here is to ensure that we can get that pro-independence message through to as many people as possible in the teeth of a Scottish media which is scandalously unrepresentative of the range of Scottish opinion on the independence question.

There are essentially two choices facing us now that the UK Supreme Court has effectively closed off any possibility of a referendum in the traditional sense. There is no chance of a section 30 order. No British Prime Minister would agree to one when there is a realistic chance of Scotland voting for independence.

That really just leaves using an election as a de facto referendum. Notions of recalling Scottish MPs and together with MSPs convening some sort of National Convention to press for independence or to declare independence are fantasy politics until such time there is a democratic vote in which a majority of voters clearly back independence. This may prove to be the way ahead eventually, but it can only succeed if first of all there is a democratic event in which a majority of voters in Scotland who turn out to vote cast a ballot for independence.

That democratic event could potentially be either using the next UK General Election, or dissolving the Scottish Parliament and calling early Scottish elections with the sole purpose of obtaining a mandate for independence, creating a de facto or plebiscite referendum. The choices for a de facto referendum are using the next UK General Election or calling an early Scottish election, both have advantages and disadvantages. What I propose to do here is to look at the pros and cons of either option.

The first thing to say here is that using such an election as a de facto referendum must be in order to win a mandate for independence itself, not , as some have mooted, in order to obtain a mandate for a referendum. Scotland has already voted for another referendum. This de facto referendum will only be taking place because Westminster has overruled the unequivocal mandate won in May 2021. Asking for yet another mandate for a referendum would merely give legitimacy to the way in which Westminster has traduced Scottish democracy and imply that it was Scotland’s fault for not speaking clearly enough in May 2021, not Westminster’s fault for ignoring the unarguable wishes of the electorate of Scotland.

The advantages of using a UK General Election include that there is no question that Westminster has the legal authority to legislate on the constitution. It could not be argued that a manifesto commitment to independence itself was outwith the legal competence of the Parliament to which election was being sought. The other advantage is that Westminster could not gerrymander the election as easily as it could with a Holyrood election by introducing rules about turnout or the percentage votes won. It could not do so in England’s constituencies and to do so in Scotland’s would cause outrage from the other parties and be an implicit recognition of the validity of a de facto referendum. There would be no rules about super majorities or minimum turn out.

In any case it is a fundamental tenet of the Westminster system that no Parliament can bind the hands of its successor. The Westminster Parliament being elected in this de facto referendum need not consider itself bound by any measures adopted by the current Parliament.

Additionally using a Westminster election means that there is no chance of a British nationalist boycott. All the parties opposed to independence will participate in the vote, which guarantees the process the democratic legitimacy it requires.

There are however considerable downsides to using a UK General Election. Scottish voices will be drowned out in a UK Election in which English concerns will dominate in the media. The franchise will be that for Westminster elections, which means that foreign nationals resident in Scotland and 16 and 17 year olds will not be able to vote.

The other downside is that we would have to wait for a UK election, one is not due until 2024. That gives the Tories two more years in which to harm us all and erode democracy even further. However although this government has notionally got a secure Commons majority, it is very far from stable, the Conservatives are deeply divided and riven with in-fighting. It is not at all unlikely that the Government will fall before 2024 and we could face an early General Election, particularly if the Tories think that they will be able to deprive Labour of a majority.

The big advantage of using a Holyrood election as a de facto referendum is that Holyrood controls the timing and the franchise. Scotland could have its vote in October next year, keeping to the timetable originally proposed. EU citizens resident in Scotland and 16 and 17 year olds would be able to vote, both of which are demographic groups which lean to Yes. It would be a Scottish vote made in Scotland, and we would not have the distraction of a media predominantly concerned with English issues or the jam tomorrow promises of Starmer’s Labour party.

There are however also big downsides to using a Holyrood election. First of all an early election would have to be engineered. This is possible albeit difficult. It might be welcomed by those of us who are desperate for an independence vote, but we must avoid bubble thinking here. Not everyone is as engaged with politics as avid readers of pro-independence blogs. Voters traditionally dislike it when parties force early elections and can wish to punish those they deem responsible. The anti-independence parties will seek to make hay about the ‘irresponsibility’ of effectively suspending government in order to have an election. Once Westminster gets wind of the idea it could rush through legislation to either rule it unlawful as being outwith Holyrood’s competence, or to gerrymander the vote by setting an unrealistically high threshold for turn out or victory.

More problematic is that the UK Government and the Anglo-British nationalist parties will certainly claim that the election is an unlawful attempt to subvert the Supreme Court and that in any case no Holyrood election can deliver a lawful mandate for independence which Westminster or the international community would recognise. Alister Jack asserted to the Scottish Affairs Committee in the Commons this week that Holyrood elections can only deliver mandates for things within Holyrood’s powers. The Conservative government would double down on this assertion if a Holyrood de facto referendum was being planned, and we would see a concerted campaign in the anti-independence media telling the public that the vote was meaningless in an attempt to destroy its democratic legitimacy and to reduce voter engagement.

There could also be a widespread boycott of the election by the anti-independence parties, undermining the legitimacy of the vote. This might even be followed by Westminster suspending Holyrood, and using the vote as the excuse the Tories have been looking for to drastically curtail the powers of the Scottish Parliament.

The harsh truth is that there is no magic bullet here, there is no easy option. Westminster is not going to make this easy for us. But as long as we focus on maximising support for independence and calling out the appalling democratic deficit forced on Scotland by the British state, we can and will win this.

There is of course no guarantee that Westminster will recognise a mandate for independence obtained by a de facto referendum – but that would be the case whichever election is used as a de facto referendum. This is where withdrawal from Westminster and the establishment of a Scottish National Convention could productively come into play. But the important thing is first of all to win that vital democratic mandate for independence itself.



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