With just a few weeks to go till the May Holyrood elections there are still some in the wider Yes movement hankering to turn that election into what they call a ‘plebiscite’. Borne out of an implacable belief that ‘Boris’ will never agree to a ‘Section 30’, its proponents contend that this will be the route that will allow Scotland to choose and get us to independence.
But what exactly is a plebiscite? What does it actually do and has it any chance of working?
Where there seems to be some dispute about what a plebiscite actually constitutes, what I understand of the proposal is that if successful it would lead to Scotland opening ‘negotiations for independence’ with the UK. In advance, the UK Government will be offered a final opportunity to ‘give’ a Section 30. I don’t think we’ll insult anybody’s intelligence by thinking for a minute that the UK Government will treat that ‘ultimatum’ with anything other than derision and contempt, whilst at the same time, making it abundantly clear that the result of any ‘plebiscite’ will be rejected and totally ignored.
What I’m not sure about is whether this ‘plebiscite’ would be a one line ‘independence nothing else’ or whether there would also be a programme for Government. I’m presuming it would just be a one line manifesto as it would seem to be a supreme waste of time and effort if it was just ‘part’ of a package. What I’m entirely sure about is that all the unionist opposition parties would defiantly refuse to agree to an election framed on this basis. Where there would be no question of them boycotting the ‘election’, what they would do is simply refuse to engage on a basis of a ‘plebiscite’ and would fight it on what is included in their manifestos.
And you could only start to imagine the campaign that would be waged by the unionist parties. They would simply love such an election. There would be all sorts of claims of the SNP seeking to ‘subvert’ a scheduled election or the SNP ‘treating the Scottish people with contempt’. They would have endless joy in presenting a ‘single issue’ SNP refusing to talk about how they would govern. They would see this as a golden opportunity to roll back the gains made with soft Yes supporters. It would be utter carnage.
What we would have to ask is if the Scottish people would be prepared to go along with their democracy being appropriated in this way? Scottish democracy is precious to the Scottish people and they genuinely want to have a debate about services, leadership, vision and governance.
But the biggest issue with all of this are the questions around democratic legitimacy. What this does is dispense with the principle at the heart of the campaign for Scottish independence that independence should be secured on the expressed consent of the Scottish people. We would be abandoning the case of a dedicated referendum to decide out future. We would then be putting the case for independence without any ‘No’ proposition, no opposition to the case for independence and waged under conditions that are rejected by those opposed to independence.
But let’s just say that we do somehow manage to get the Scottish people to go along with all of this and somehow the plebiscite proposition prevails.
What happens next?
This is a UK Government that we are invited to presume will always say ‘No’, We are apparently then invited to accept the notion that they will turn on their heads and say – ‘OK, fair enough you won this election, which we refused to contest as a plebiscite, and said we would ignore, but let’s get down to the business of divvying up the assets of the UK state’. It is beyond absurd.
‘We’ll just do it anyway’ you might then say. Well, this is where we start to get into some seriously tricky territory. ‘Just doing it anyway’ means we would be doing something broadly similar to what Catalonia did when they won their uncontested referendum. This would in effect mean declaring some sort of Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). The consequences of which could not be more serious.
What about the international community coming to our rescue, I can hear some people gently inquire? Well sorry, not a chance. Could you imagine for a moment turning up to the international community asking for our independence to be recognised when the state we are seeking to leave has had absolutely nothing to do with the process, where there has been no ‘No’ proposition and the whole question has not been properly debated? We would be laughed out of the room.
What some people fail to understand is that the ‘International community’ is a members club, which sees these issues as an ‘internal’ matter. The only part of the international community that has offered any sort of opinion on Scottish independence is the EU who have repeatedly said that they would be genuinely supportive of Scottish independence if it is pursued ‘legally, constitutionally and in partnership with the UK’. An uncontested ‘plebiscite’ is the antithesis of that.
But there is one group of people who would be absolutely delighted if we abandoned the referendum route and embarked down this dead end, and they inhabit the Conservative benches of the House of Commons.
What a plebiscite does is let the Tories off the referendum hook. They know that if the SNP replicate the conditions of the 2011 election and secure another majority it is all more or less over. All their current planning and strategising is simply screaming ‘we are in big trouble’. The Tories know a referendum is coming.
The Tories know the last chance of their union being saved is if we beat ourselves. Their only plan is to continue to say ‘No’ then hope that this No is accepted as their last word and gospel and count on the frustration and division building. They could not be more delighted at the way this simple but effective plan is working out. If we went down a plebiscite route it would be a total vindication of their ‘Plan No’. They, without doing anything, will have pushed us down the road of the electorally unpalatable whilst ending their referendum woes.
A plebiscite can not possibly get us to independence and achieves nothing other than letting the Tories off the hook. My one regret is that this debate has never been concluded and put to bed. It should have been put to our conference where it would have been overwhelmingly rejected by the party. Unfortunately it will now continue to be a diverting feature up to the May election consuming debate and effort. How much better off we would all be if that energy was spent on winning that majority, securing a referendum and winning our independence.