By Jason Michael
It seems to be the case that the date of the next independence referendum has everyone champing at the bit. There’s no point getting ourselves worked up into a tizzy right now though, there’s still a few things needing to get done.
Not all independentistas are going to agree on when the next referendum on independence should be, and thankfully this is a decision that is out of most of our hands. Frustratingly, however, the final say on when it will be isn’t even in the hands of Nicola Sturgeon or the Scottish government, but with Theresa May and the Westminster government. This certainly is not the cause for alarm that some have suggested it to be, the British Prime Minister knows as well as we do that she cannot continue to rule Scotland without its consent indefinitely. With the May council elections fast approaching, with a projected sweep of the seats for the SNP on the cards, it is clear that London rule has reached the end of its rope in Scotland. Another referendum is inevitable.
It is true that not everyone is in favour of another vote on independence, including some on the Yes side. The unionist press is all too keen to impress upon us that support for another crack at the whip on this question remains at about 45.5 percent, but this figure is clearly enough within any democracy to merit the question being put to the people, and this not-insignificant number represents those in favour of independence before a campaign has begun. When we reflect on the fact that support for a Yes vote in the last referendum sat at only 32 percent in 2012 we can appreciate the anxiety of the Scottish unionist ideologues at the prospect of a rerun where we are starting off almost at the halfway mark.
Nationalists and unionists – when they put their thinking hats on – are forced to concede that the present two year old deadlock in Scottish political life can only be brought to an end in one of two ways; either with the comprehensive defeat of the independence movement or with independence. In either case only another referendum will determine the outcome. The argument that Scotland decided this in September 2014 and that the losing Yes voters now need to pack up their bumf and get back aboard the Britain train goes beyond ridiculous. It clearly was not decided, and even if it was it was decided for 2014 and not for 2016. Time has moved on; the demand for independence has remained, and the material circumstances and the situation on the ground have changed.
At this point a bone has to be given to the unionists. We simply cannot live in a nation trapped in the “never-endum.” Our constitutional crisis cannot last forever, and those we have elected to government in Holyrood and those we never elected to government in Westminster are all too well aware of this. Sturgeon knows what May knows – that the outright refusal of the British government to grant us another referendum pushes the Scottish government towards a unilateral declaration of independence, something London has experienced before and will not allow to happen again. And so, despite her posturing and unconvincing strongman routine, Theresa May will be brought to heel and give us our chance to return to the polls.
What remains then, between now and then, is for us to quibble over the best date for the rematch. In June of last year we voted on Brexit on the understanding that a difference of outcomes between Scotland and England would drive a deeper wedge between these two parts of the Union, and that gamble has paid off. England and Wales voted to leave the European Union and the single market and Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain. The result of this is that Westminster, following – as it always does – an English agenda, is attempting to drag Scotland from the EU against our will. This was the moment, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, that some felt was the opportune time for a referendum. That would have been naïve and probably even disastrous.
We have over four million voters to carry with us, and we need to convince more than half of those who vote that independence is the best decision for Scotland. It is evident that even after Brexit the clear majority of No voters and unionists are still unconvinced of this, and the Article 50 process offers them time to weigh up what will be best for them in light of the terms of the UK’s departure from Europe. We do not know those terms yet.
In the meantime, in my estimation at any rate, Nicola Sturgeon has done the right thing. Real governance is about Realpolitik – using the status quo, insofar as one is powerless to affect it, to gain as many of one’s political objectives as possible until one is able to change the ground. Unionists in Scotland who voted to remain in the EU did so not in order to leave the UK, but in a genuine effort to do the best thing for Scotland. In order to convince them that independence is the only way in which they too can have what they want the First Minister first had to take their demands as a compromise to Downing Street. They had to be shown that they too were going to be bullied and ignored. By offering to hold off on an independence referendum for their sake of a negotiated Brexit that better suits the social and economic needs of Scotland she has shown that she is willing to represent them – even at the cost of what they have been led to believe is her sole desire.
This brings us to this year, 2017. It’s already off the table, and for good reason. We cannot afford to lose this referendum. Enough of those on the No side who voted against Brexit remain unconvinced that Brexit will indeed be hard and in turn hit them hard. Only the Article 50 negotiations will make this clear to them. The rising tide of the right in France and Germany – and across the whole of Europe – analogous to that which brought about a Leave vote in England demands that Britain’s exit be punitive. The optimism of the brave-faced Brexiteers is baseless. Britain will be punished by the EU, not for the sake of cruelty or petty-minded revenge, but for the sake of saving Europe. It will only be as these terms are spelled out by an infinitely more experienced EU negotiating team that the reality of the situation will fully dawn on the Scottish No-voting Remainer. This will not happen in 2017, and – besides – even without this we will still need at least twelve months for a campaign.
At the nearest then, our referendum will be in 2018 or 2019 – and it is likely that it will be announced in the coming year; with the Scottish government acting in tandem with the EU to unsettle the Westminster government in its moments of dark Article 50 confusion. The later we leave the date of the referendum, or, rather, the closer we put it to the close of the Brexit negotiations the better we will be positioned to benefit from the better reflection of the Scottish unionists and No voters we need to win over to secure the Yes vote we want. This later date – late 2018 or early 2019 – fits well with what Alex Salmond said to me in our 2 October interview last year:
We’re heading for an independence referendum in the autumn of 2018, and I think in that context – with that range of choices – the answer this time will be yes to independence.
– Alex Salmond, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, 2 October 2016
By the autumn of 2018 the context of a finalised Brexit will be clear and the choices available to both the Westminster government and the people of Scotland will be stark. It only makes sense that we work towards another referendum in August or September 2018. No one likes going to the polls in January or February. A decision by the end of 2018 will give the Scottish government ample time to ensure a smooth transition from the United Kingdom to an independent legacy member state of the European Union – bearing in mind that this date for a referendum will only be possible with the support of the EU. In this context, bargaining for independence and a simultaneous “Scexit” neither looks to be desired nor even possible.
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