For the anti-independence parties it’s 2011 all over again. When then First Minister Alex Salmond announced the Scottish Government’s intention to hold an independence referendum following the SNP victory in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, the Conservatives and Labour immediately denounced it.
Westminster would never allow a referendum, we were told, and in any case Labour and the Tories were quite certain that it was unlawful, divisive and unnecessary and the people of Scotland didn’t really want it anyway. In the months that followed there were threats that the referendum would be struck down by the courts, warnings about “wildcat” or “illegal” referendums, and the confident assertion that the British Government would slap an uppity Holyrood down. There was much talk in the media of whether Scotland would or would not be “allowed” to hold another referendum, a discussion which was underpinned by the unspoken and unchallenged assumption that Scotland could have no agency in determining its own fate. Scotland was but a supplicant begging Westminster for a ballot that was in Westminster’s sole power to give. Talk of “granting” a Section 30 order is a telling admission of how British nationalism really perceives Scotland’s place in what they like to tell us is a family of nations. It’s a decidedly subordinate place.
There followed a game of brinkmanship between Holyrood and Westminster, until eventually, faced with the realisation that his government risked losing any input into the process, David Cameron agreed to a Section 30 order in order to maintain the political fiction that Westminster was still in control of the course of events. Ten years on and here we are again. Westminster is still desperate to maintain the political fiction that it is in control of the course of events.
It all sounds very familiar the second time around although now we have the added screech notes that the 2014 referendum was “supposed to be once in a generation” as though the campaign rhetoric of Alex Salmond represented a binding commitment – you might even say “Vow”, if it were not for the fact that that’s a word which triggers the heirs of Better Together – that binds the entirety of the Scottish nation for as long as it suits the Westminster parties, parties for whom the shelf life of an unkept promise is shorter than a five day old bottle of milk sitting out in direct sunshine, Viz. The Vow.
The British nationalist parties have learned nothing from their experience of ten years ago and still act as though it is a viable strategy to bully and threaten the people of Scotland and lecture us about how democracy is unlawful when it doesn’t suit the interests of British nationalism. This is not the way to sell the supposed benefits of Westminster rule to an increasingly dubious Scotland. “Stay with us Scotland so we can prevent you from having any say over your future,” is not exactly a winning slogan.
We are now a long way on from former leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson’s words of wisdom, well OK not so much wisdom as a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, back in 2007 at the end of that year’s Holyrood election which produced no majority in the Scottish Parliament for an independence referendum, and as the SNP was about to govern as a minority administration, the would be Saviour of the Union opined: “You don’t get a referendum for free, you have to earn it. So if the Greens and the SNP and the SSP, or any of the other parties who have declared an interest in independence, get it over the line and can make a coalition, make a majority, get the votes in the Parliament, then they’ll vote through a referendum. That’s what democracy is all about.”
Fifteen years later and the Conservatives appear to have forgotten what democracy is all about. Evidence from 2021 Scottish Election Study shows that the majority of people in Scotland – 61% – think that Holyrood has a mandate to deliver an independence referendum. The election was only a year ago but Ross and Sarwar seem to be hoping that we all have very short memories and don’t recall that the election was completely dominated by the issue of a second independence referendum. That election was effectively a referendum on a referendum and by the rules of democratic elections it was decisively settled in favour of those who want another referendum. We are no longer debating whether the people of Scotland want another referendum. That question has been answered. Attempts by Douglas Ross and Anas Sarwar to rehash their arguments from last year are merely the undemocratic complaints of sore losers. The people have Scotland have decided that this is the time for another referendum. It’s not a decision for the losers of last year’s election to make.
The fundamental issue here is that those who believe that a referendum and the question of Scottish independence can be halted in its tracks by legal means are committing a category error. The question of Scottish independence is a political question not a legal one, and as such it can only be settled through a political process, not through the courts. An appeal to the courts by opponents of independence can only ever provide a delaying tactic not a definitive solution.
The Scottish Government will shortly set out its plans on holding a lawful vote with or without Westminster “granting” Scotland something which is already inherently Scotland’s, the right of the people of this country to choose for themselves the form of government best suited to their needs. It may only be then that Westminster will realise that if it wishes to maintain the fiction that it is in control of events that it will cooperate in facilitating a referendum and that Westminster’s last best hope of preventing independence is not to show the people of Scotland that democracy in Scotland is impossible as long as Scotland remains a part of a Conservative dominated Westminster.
Indeed politically an appeal to the courts to block the referendum is a very dangerous road for them to go down, because it would provide definitive proof that they do not respect the democratic will of the people of Scotland and create the strong impression that they seek to hide from the ballot box because they are afraid of the answer that the electorate might give. If the courts try to block a referendum, the river of politics will simply find another course, one which flows all the stronger because of the attempt to dam it. And by that time the Conservatives and the Labour party will have lost any chance of influencing the process. The anti independence parties can either accept what democracy is all about or be swept away by democracy. The ball is in the court of the people of Scotland, not theirs.
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