THE MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

A guest post from Stuart Rodger.

fbt

The missed opportunities

On the drizzly, grey morning of the 19th September 2014, as Scotland was coming to terms with having voted No to independence the night before, no one could have known just how propitious the circumstances for a second plebiscite – with more favourable chances of success – would soon become. But seven years on, Scotland is no closer to independence, in any real legal sense, than it was on that characteristically dreich Scottish morning in 2014.   

As Scotland heads towards a fresh parliamentary election – and with the spectacle of Alex Salmond’s new political party on the scene – it’s worth examining the opportunities missed for Nicola Sturgeon to turn a second referendum into a reality, and put Scotland on a path to its historic departure from the United Kingdom.

** 

Within days of the lost 2014 vote, membership of the SNP had surged to over a hundred thousand members, taking it to third place in the UK as a political party by size of membership. Nicola Sturgeon packed out The Hydro concert hall in Glasgow with over 10,000 gushing activists, giddy with renewed determination and devotion to the cause. Within eight months, the SNP rode into Westminster on a tsunami, winning 56 out of 59 Scottish constituency seats – a political spectacle many of us never thought we’d see in our lifetimes. And then, on the 23rd June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, while every Scottish local authority had voted to stay. It felt like the union was about to go bang. 

After months of faux compromise – Sturgeon had advocated a special Scottish Deal, but everyone knew this was unlikely to come to pass – the much-anticipated call for a second referendum duly came on the 13th March 2017. 

But there was a problem, a problem Scottish readers will by now be quite familiar with but which readers from elsewhere perhaps less so. The conventional reading of the law as it stands – specifically the Scotland Act 1998 – is that constitutional affairs, and the Union itself, are reserved to Westminster. Schedule 5 of the Act states that “the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England” is a reserved matter, but provides an avenue for the temporary transfer of such powers under Section 30 of the same Act. 

Theresa May said No. “Now is not the time”, to be precise. Everyone waited with baitedbreath for Nicola Sturgeon to pull something out of the bag in response.  

But Sturgeon didn’t budge. She didn’t move. After weeks of waiting it became clear what her strategy was: stand back and use the moral and democratic force of her cumulative mandates: the 2015 Westminster landslide, the 2016 SNP win, and then the Brexit vote, dragging Scotland out of the EU against its will. To this day, Sturgeon maintains that refusal to grant permission for a second referendum is “unsustainable” and that those who stand in the way of democracy “get swept away”. It begs the question, was Sturgeon right to do this, or was she, as some critics have suggested, “asleep at the wheel”? What real opportunities were there to politically arm-twist Westminster to grant Scotland its referendum? 

Three opportunities are discernible. 

Opportunity one came in the form of a potential legal challenge on the question of constitutional competence. This would have involved the Scottish Government legislating for a referendum, and then the asking Scottish Court of Session, and then the Supreme Court, to arbitrate on whether the Scottish Parliament alone had the power to enact the legislation. There are those who think such a challenge would be dead on arrival. But others disagree, suggesting that the Scottish Parliament may well have the power to hold a legal referendum, but that Westminster would merely be under no real legal obligation to legislate and enact the result, with only a political obligation to do so. 

This seems to be the essence of Aidan O’Neill QC’s position on the matter, who drew up a legal opinion on this question for a grassroots effort, led by Martin Keatings, to have this question tested in court, arguing: “if the avowed purpose of the Scottish Parliament in legislating for a further independence referendum is simply to consult the people of Scotland only about possible future constitutional change… then this may be said to be predicated on an acceptance that any fundamental change in the terms of the current Union between the Kingdoms of Scotland and England is a matter ultimately for the Union Parliament to make.”

If that had failed, opportunity two came in the form of the result of the 2017 General Election, which gave the SNP some measurable bargaining power in the House of Commons. A deal could have been struck between Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May, whereby the SNP would have provided the crucial votes to vote through her Brexit Deal in exchange for a Section 30 and Westminster’s green light for a referendum. Despite being unquestionably controversial, there would have arguably been a certain political elegance to it, given that it would have respected both mandates – the mandate for Brexit, and the mandate for a second independence referendum. Granted, it would have been improbable for May to sign up to this, but so desperate was May to go down in history as the PM to deliver Brexit that the idea cannot be dismissed off hand. 

Had that failed, opportunity three came in the form of a plebiscitary election. The proposal is that the SNP would be going into the looming May election with a stripped down manifesto, declaring that a vote for it – and possibly any other pro-independence party – would be a vote of endorsement on the question of independence itself. The intervening time between a failed offer of a deal with Theresa May and the looming election could have been used to a draw up a blueprint for the infrastructure of an independent state. Such a blueprint could have been launched somewhere symbolic, like Rosyth, in Fife – a touted location for a Scotland-EU trading port after Scotland re-joins the bloc. 

But instead, Sturgeon has lit a slowly defusing bomb underneath the party, pursuing wildly divisive policies like Gender Self ID, which many women regard as a threat to their sex-based rights, and oppressive hate speech laws, which were roundly criticised from groups as disparate as the Scottish Catholic Church and the Scottish Secular Society. So much of the campaign for independence is about capturing the imagination and the possibilities of what Scotland could be, but Sturgeon has refused to talk up the possibilities of independence for years now. Even the pandemic hasn’t changed that, but instead reinforced it. 

More than that, she has moved the SNP from centre-left to solidly centrist turf: ditching radical land reform, endorsing the neoliberal agenda proposed in the Growth Commission,and aligning with the hawkish side of American foreign policy. 

There is only one final, more charitable explanation for Sturgeon’s inaction over the past five years, and that is that she is merely playing the long game. She herself has said, in an interview with The Scotsman last year to mark her 50th birthday: “the Yes movement possibly has something to learn about the fact that – as we have stopped shouting about independence, and shouting to ourselves about how we go about getting independence, and just focused on [dealing with the pandemic] – it has allowed people to take a step back and say: ‘Well, actually that’s the benefit of autonomous decision-making’ and also ‘perhaps things would be better if we had a bit more autonomous decision-making,’”

Cynics may suggest this is self-serving: as a strategy it conveniently helps to shore up the SNP’s devolved power, while absolving them of the responsibility of grasping the thistle and actually delivering independence. In this analysis, the SNP does not exist for independence, but the idea of independence exists for the SNP, and gradualism has become unionism. But others point to the opinion polls, which arguably vindicate her: of the last 30 opinion polls, 23 of them have recorded a majority for Yes.

But with the launch of Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party, which is seeking to win SNP voters’ second vote on the regional list and thereby help build a supermajority for independence, it is clear that patience in the movement is at literal breaking point. The set-up of other minor parties – the Independence for Scotland Party and Action for Independence – were already indicative of a restlessness in the movement boiling over. The achievement of a supermajority, if it happens, will generate ferocious political pressure in and of itself. Even more thrillingly, however, is that should court challenges uphold the status quo, a parliament with a two-thirds majority can choose to dissolve – opening the door to a plebiscitary election as a democratic alternative to a referendum. 

In truth, the problems in Scottish politics can arguably be boiled down to a very prosaic explanation, which is that expecting one political party, in the form of the SNP, to sustainably carry 50% of the population is unhealthy and simply unrealistic. Of course 50% of the population have divergent, and strongly held, views on the economy and social policy, and indeed the type of independence to be pursued. The animosity and rivalry of Nigel Farage and Dominic Cummings proved a successful formula for delivering Brexit, a dynamic and winning Leave versus Leave campaign. Could the same happen for Scottish independence, with Yes versus Yes? 

The prize for the independence movement is within sight. The election of the next parliament will show us whether it can yet be grasped. 

References • “swept away”: https://www.thenational.scot/news/18908324.nicola-sturgeon-johnson-will-swept-away-like-trump-denies-democracy/• “unsustainable”https://www.gov.scot/publications/first-minister-statement-brexit-scotlands-future/• “if the avowed purpose of”https://security-eu.mimecast.com/ttpwp#/checking?key=c2luZGkubXVsZXNAYmFsZm91ci1tYW5zb24uY28udWt8cmVxLWVlZmM2OGU4Y2VjOTA0OGVhNWU2MzEwOTNmOWMyNzg0• “the Yes movement possibly has”https://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/big-interview-nicola-sturgeon-resilience-party-unity-and-turning-50-2917739• “of the last 30 opinion polls”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_on_Scottish_independence

27 thoughts on “THE MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

  1. In all of this debate, there is seldom much reference to Scotland’s history of being an independent country. South of the border many are ignorant of their own history and even more so of Scotland’s and see Scotland’s claim for independence a bit like London or Devon or Cornwall demanding independence.

    Politically our previous independence up to 1707 and the Treaty of Union from which we wish to resile, should be talked up big time in order to normalise our demand. During Brexit someone on the Leave side said “no country can be held in a treaty against its will”. What a gift for us to use in our argument but it seems to have been binned. The legal arguments can be pursued later.

    Liked by 11 people

  2. An excellent precis of the last 6.5 years.

    I believe that immediately post-18th September 2014 YES supporters, who had come tantalisingly close to victory, from a made an emotional transference and thus signed up to the SNP (from Labour etc).

    The trust was placed in Nicola as Alex’ anointed successor. Sadly Nicola has not lived up to her predecessor. She is cautious and conservative whilst Alex was an insurgent, prepared to take a gamble. But not a reckless one. He calculated, weighing up the potential upside of reward versus the downside of risk.

    Nicola has proven to have feet of clay, sticking rigidly with her position. As such, her Unionist opponents just dance rings round her, picking her off when she attempts to flick our a jab.

    What we need is someone who boxes clever. Can use ring craft to bamboozle the opponent before landing the sucker punch. If you like, somebody who can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

    SNP 1 / ALBA 2 has the best chance of doing just that at this election.

    Liked by 9 people

  3. Exactly. But to sum up: on international precedent alone, it is the absolute right of the Scottish People to declare independence. So enough of us have to demonstrate that independence is our sovereign decision. The ALBA policy of first vote SNP second vote ALBA is a brilliant positive intiative and should be a torally positive inspiring campaign. So…let’s campaign positively, really really positively…as in SNP First Vote- GOOD; ALBA Second Vote GOOD. Let’s stop attacking each other. My votes have been posted and I am out leafleting/canvassing for SNP, and absolutely ready to leaflet/ canvass for ALBA- as soon as I am asked.
    But I am horrified and depressed about the attacks being made on each other. SNP and ALBA attacking each other while Tory sleazy totalitarianism gets ready to impose the Power Grab- and worse on Holyrood- and Scotland??????
    Here are some slogans: Scotland comes first. Scotland comes first. Independence now. Stop fighting each other.

    Liked by 10 people

      1. The problem with your reply-for me Iain -is that you are pausing to notice and complain. We need positive momentum- following up on Professor Edgerton’s argument that Scotland’s independence will help England get a new start; attacking the Tory sleaze- from the abolition of local council standards- to the resignation of Alex Allan over the Priti Patel pay off – to the Lex Greensill/ Matt Hancock/ David Cameron/Jennifer Arcuri/ Robert Jenryck – to the illegal pror0gation of Parliament etc etc. These political thugs have normalised corruption and incompetence at Westminster. We desperately need to concentrate on making sure people understand that the Power Grab means all this is coming to that horrific unionjackery building in Edinburgh. We have not got time to waste fighting each other. Let’s get on with explaining why we need to protect Holyrood and move on to Independence.
        The Power Grab is waiting for us is we let ourselves down.

        Like

    1. Hi Mullwharcharcom,

      If you haven’t already, head over to https://www.albaparty.org/volunteer and put your name down. That will get you on the list for distributing leaflets.

      Leaflets are being distributed to volunteers from today.

      Totally agree with your thoughts. Every word out of our mouths should be putting ‘Scotland first’.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well better late than never I suppose

        Still NO CONTACT from my local ALBA representative lots of action here but none on the ground where I am and I’m really getting peed off

        HOPEFULLY something will happen soon, and my name has been down for lots of help since this started

        ATM it is not only NS that has feet of clay.

        Action on the ground is needed and ASAP, time waits for no man not even AS or Scotland

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Even though we narrowly lost the battle of 2014 the Army was not defeated. The momentum of the movement continued to build. This was when a determined leader could have executed a counterattack and won the War.

    Instead we had Sturgeon the Quartermaster checking that the correct paperwork was in place befor the ammunition was issued. Confirming the ration packs were in date. Asking for inspection parades to find the missing mess tins.
    Momentum was lost! The troops started brawling with each other!

    Then a old hand appeared and fired up the troops again – vote ALBA.

    Liked by 8 people

  5. The SNP leadership are depending on Westminster for finance. the MP levy brings in over £500,000 and there is over £1.2m in expenses. Independence loses that and around 120 employment positions.

    The SNP are scared of independence since it means a lot of work setting up finance and taxation, foreign embassies, specifying defence equipment. Murrell has 12 years to retirement and need his over £100,000 salary and funded pensions independence after 2033

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This is it in a nutshell: “a two-thirds majority can choose to dissolve – opening the door to a plebiscitary election as a democratic alternative to a referendum”.

    Scotland’s future back in Scotland’s hands.

    Great article, Stuart.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whilst Scotland remains in the UK, every national election is a plebiscite on independence. Scottish sovereignty means that a majority of Scotland’s national representatives may lawfully end the treaty-based UK alliance, as it began. Waiting on a #Supermajority is just showing added respect to our oppressor. Negotiations on independence should start in May.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Was it not the case that ,if there was any material change of UK status after the 2014 referendum ,then Scotland could argue for another referendum, ie UK voting us out of EU against our will.
    Surely Brexit falls into the category of “Material Change”, as a catastrophic change for Scots . Can anyone put more light into that argument?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. What about the simplest explanation of them all? That Ms Sturgeon does not want to lead the SNP to actual independence? That she never contemplated it after the 2014 referendum result? Are we saying that the leader of the SNP has not understood that a second S30 Order was never going to materialize because the Westminster lot had cottoned on that it was a really bad idea and could actually lead to independence for Scotland?

    We are often offered the other explanation: that she is scared to confront Westminster. Nah. She has taken on the trans mantle, and that has cost her party dearly. She has all but destroyed the SNP consensus; her actions over the Hate Crime legislation and the GRA Reform have led directly to the party splitting and to the rise of Alba on the List. She has squandered public trust in the name of these two highly-divisive policies, leading to her child and education policies, because of their being linked to Stonewall, also being highly suspect. We are now at the point where we are asking ourselves just what she is doing by supporting organizations that have very iffy connections to other organizations with very iffy connections – and not just supporting them, but financing them with public money.

    I look back now at 2014 and see a deputy leader who fooled almost everybody. Independence was never on her radar at all, unless it came by accident. Never was she going to do anything whatsoever that would advance it. She was and remains a devolutionist masquerading as an independista, like so many of her pseudo ‘woke’ coterie. The truth is a bitter pill to swallow, but we must if we are to move towards independence before it is too late.

    Liked by 7 people

  9. The people of Scotland are sovereign in Scotland. They don’t need to ask for anyone’s permission to hold a referendum, or indeed, to declare their part in the so-called united kingdom well and truly over.

    Hopefully there are about to be elected to Holyrood politicians who agree with that fact and are about to act upon it.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I think that if Alba don’t succeed in gingering up the SNP to take action on independence, then it will have to field candidates in the next Westminster election, and also constituency candidates in the next Holyrood election.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. I’m puzzled. If the bomb lit by Nicola Sturgeon under the SNP is “defusing”, what is there to worry about? If it’s “defusing” it can’t be detonating. Ever.

    Like

  12. I’m puzzled. Why would SNP MSPs vote their own party out of office? Stuart Rodger assumes they will. As do many others making grandiose claims about the efficacy of a supermajority. None bother to try and resolve the conundrum. We are expected to just go along with the assumption. We are not expected to think about it. We are certainly not expected to question it.

    Unfortunately for Stuart Rodger and the rest anybody who does take the trouble to think about the claim that a supermajority makes it possible to force an extraordinary general election and make it a plebiscite will quickly realise that the claim is nonsensical. A product – or symptom – of the fantasy politics to which some have turned in an effort to fill the void left by the SNP’s failure to pursue the restoration of Scotland’s independence.

    The problem for Stuart Rodger and the rest is that while in their fantasy politics there is no such thing as parliamentary procedure and arithmetic is always accommodating, in the real world what may be possible is constrained by statute and standing orders. And arithmetic can be very inconsiderate indeed.

    For the parliament to be dissolved at least two-thirds of MSPs must vote for the proposal. But the proposal must first be tabled and seconded and accepted by the Presiding Officer. One of the multitude of questions Alba supporters adamantly decline to answer is who would propose the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament? Who would table such a draconian proposals knowing that it was doomed to fail?

    It is all but certainly doomed to fail. This is where the awkward arithmetic comes in. Two-thirds of the total number of MSPs is 86. Alba is standing only 32 candidates. Even in the vanishingly unlikely event that every single on of those candidates was returned, the party is still massively short of the 86 votes required. The next question to go unanswered is, where are the other 54 votes going to come from?

    The Scottish Greens? Perhaps. But even if all of them decide to vote to dissolve a parliament in which they are likely to have some influence over the Scottish Government, on the best estimate I’ve seen that would only be another 11 votes. Leaving half of the required number still to find.

    SNP ‘rebels’? Perhaps. But how many of those are there likely to be given the SNP leaderships ability to ensure the predominantly Sturgeon loyalists are selected as candidates? I think we may safely assume it’s going to be nearer 3 or 4 than 43. But let’s go wild and double that figure. Let’s say there are 8 SNP ‘rebels’ willing to end their political careers by supporting what is effectively a vote of no confidence in the SNP administration. That’s us up to a very, very optimistic 51 of 86.

    With 35 votes left to find there’s nowhere else to turn but the British parties. Even with the best will in the world it’s difficult to see why any British party MSPs would support a resolution dissolving the parliament. What possible motive could they have? Especially given that the purpose of the dissolution is to facilitate a vote that they are fervently opposed to. Although, while we’re on that subject, we might ask another awkward question. Even if we some end up with enough votes to dissolve the parliament and force an extraordinary general election, I know of no way this can be made a plebiscitary election without the cooperation of the sitting administration and the Presiding Officer. If those making these claims about what can be done with a supermajority are aware of how this can be done that is the kind of information they are not keen to share.

    Will 35 MSPs from the British parties vote in favour of dissolving the parliament so as to facilitate a vote which might well lead to the end of their ‘precious’ Union? I’m guessing none will. But even if half of them accidentally press the wrong button when it comes to the vote it still wouldn’t be enough. Or is Alba envisioning a parliament in which the British parties hold more than 70 seats?

    Over to Stuart Rodger for some answers. Normal respiration should be maintained in the interim.

    Like

    1. Peter you are such a defeatist. I have not given up completely on the SNP, NOR SHOULD YOU. It might take a new leader Nicola is not very good at changing tac on anything but if Alba becomes well established at Holyrood SNP members would not take well to them blocking the route. Being a leader of a Party with fewer and fewer members is not going to be appealing so I am confident things can change. Just until recently you gave no hope of any list Party winning seats, now it not only looks possible, it seems very likely. That is the nature of politics, constantly changing.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I am not a defeatist. I am a realist. A realist who is still waiting on answers. A realist who is too much of a realist to have expected answers.

        I thought numbers didn’t lie? Isn’t that what you were telling everybody when it suited your purpose? Different story now, eh? Now we absolutely must not take account of the arithmetic.

        Never mind the problems! Look at the slogans!

        Like

  13. Good article Stuart, but this statement needed more exploration:’
    Within eight months, the SNP rode into Westminster on a tsunami, winning 56 out of 59 Scottish constituency seats – a political spectacle many of us never thought we’d see in our lifetimes.’

    Exactly, and there it was: an unequivocal and overwhelming vote, one year after a fixed and corrupt Referendum, the Sovereign will of the Scottish people in the approved electoral manner and within the constitutional framework which was that understood and accepted as the route, by Westminster, throughout the 20th century, to allow the conditions for dissolving the Union of Scotland and England to be implemented.
    Yet it did not happen. Why?… well for a start, Salmond changed the SNP approach to Independence with a Referendum based on the bogus Devolved settlement. The day after the Ref, the crook Cameron invoked EVEL and essentially began the diminution of our Sovereignty in Westminster. We had 51% of the popular vote , including the Greens. and the almost complete set of parliamentary seats..the basis of the Parliamentary Representative Democracy that the English claim exists in their unwritten constitution. Salmond also appointed and anointed his successor the dubious Sturgeon..the do nothing or maybe doing something, but not what we voted for ,’leader’.

    Within two years,all the ground had begun to be lost. Half a million votes and 21 seats disappeared, because Sturgeon and Salmond wanted to fight at the parliamentary Election on their ‘record’. I recall cringing at Salmond singing ‘Ode to Joy’. The showman as ever, soon to be ejected and then crucified by his erstwhile protegee. But it got worse: the abject and embarrassing Sturgeon/Blackford axis of supine surrender over Brexit. Huffing and puffing while taking selfies with Campbell the war mongerer…ugliness was all. Then the next quote resonates more in the context of the May election:

    ‘But there was a problem, a problem Scottish readers will by now be quite familiar with but which readers from elsewhere perhaps less so. The conventional reading of the law as it stands – specifically the Scotland Act 1998 – is that constitutional affairs, and the Union itself, are reserved to Westminster. Schedule 5 of the Act states that “the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England” is a reserved matter, but provides an avenue for the temporary transfer of such powers under Section 30 of the same Act. ‘

    Yes, something that everybody keeps forgetting: Holyrood is a bloated accounting unit. A stage for sharp suited nonentities and bogus virtue signallers. A talking shop for political pygmies which has seduced Scots into believing that it can change anything. That’s why I am not happy about Alba standing on list seats only. It’s farting at thunder.
    As Peter Bell points out, it has no will to self destruct, super majority or not. Even if it did , Boris will say ‘Fine, close yourself down’, Direct Rule would be implemented. Very easily, as it happens, as they have got the new ‘Union’ H.Q. sitting ready to go with 3000 incoming civil service . Back to the future as ever. We are facing the prospect of starting over again from ground zero. So be it. But it is imperative that ALBA is able to withstand all the band wagon jumping rats who can smell the death knell of the SNP and see a lifetime of free lunches in prospect. We need new structures and totally transparent mechanisms….and an end to dark age puritanical perversity in our political system.

    Like

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: