By Jason Michael

The narrowness of the divide between Yes and No in 2014, the polarisation of Brexit, and events in Catalonia have all changed how the next Scottish independence referendum will be played out. We must adapt to this new environment.

Joe Pike’s 2015 tell-all account of the Better Together campaign, Project Fear, opens with an account of a British Cabinet discussion following the 2011 Holyrood election at which the idea of replicating Spain’s attitude to Catalonia and declaring any referendum illegal was ruled out on the grounds that it would only “guarantee Scottish secession.” Rather than do this the British government opted to deploy what even the No campaign would come to know as “project Fear,” a relentless campaign of negativity, fear-mongering, lies, and disinformation that would effectively intimidate enough of Scotland’s undecided voters into backing the status quo. It worked.

Now that we have reached another constitutional impasse the necessity of another independence referendum has become clear. Scotland has no way out of Brexit – an isolationist and economically dangerous exit from the European Union it rejected at the polls – unless it makes the decision it failed to make on 18 September 2014 and ends its union with England. If Scotland is to have any hope of deciding its own future it has no choice now but to seek independence. Where people voted against independence in 2014 for things to remain the same, now a vote for independence is the last remaining chance for that to happen.

This must fundamentally change how the British government will approach another request from the Scottish government for another referendum. The Scottish National Party set out its table in its 2016 manifesto when the party said it would seek another referendum if there was “clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people,” or if there was a “significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”

While support for independence has remained at or slightly above the 45 per cent of the September 2014 vote, the imposition of Brexit on Scotland – which Scots rejected with a 62 per cent vote to Remain – may well prove to be the key to changing a deciding fraction of the Scottish electorate’s mind on the constitutional question. Scotland is being taken from the EU against its will, and, while the polls on independence are not yet shifting, this manifesto gives the SNP a clear mandate to request another Section 30 allowing for another referendum. The Scottish government has already been granted the permission of the Scottish parliament to make such a request, but the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has put this on ice.

Clearly it cannot stay on pause forever. The independence movement is now anxious to get the show on the road and the SNP knows that a decision has to be made on or around the time of the party’s spring conference. Time is running out for Nicola Sturgeon on this, but this also means that time is running out for Westminster. Something has to give, and the Tory Secretary of State, David Mundell, has now publically conceded that it is now on the cards that the Scottish government will press ahead with another referendum later this year.

When the Scottish government does formally decide to seek a Section 30 order from the British government the same options will still be available to London as were available in 2011. The British government can refuse to entertain the idea and take the same position on Scotland as Madrid has taken with Catalonia. London did not seriously consider the possibility of a vote for independence in 2011, but now it knows this is a distinct possibility. In fact, given the change in material circumstances and the narrowness of the gap, a Yes vote is more likely now than it has ever been.

This material change in circumstances has also been a significant change in circumstances for the British government. Brexit poses a serious and possibly catastrophic threat to the British economy. Its desire for 1930s style isolationism and the reluctance of non EU countries to enter into trade talks with it has left the United Kingdom in a vulnerable position, and, at times like this, natural resources like oil and gas are important. London will need all the chips it can lay its hands on if it is to stand a chance of attracting the international support it needs to survive Brexit.

Where Spain cannot constitutionally allow Catalan secession, Britain has fast found itself in a position where it cannot economically allow Scottish independence. Scotland is Britain’s chief resource. Given this change in circumstances it is altogether likely that Britain will change its game plan, either making a referendum illegal or withholding consent. The bottom line here is that Britain cannot now allow Scotland to leave the union.

As this not unlikely scenario plays out Scotland will find itself in much the same position that Catalonia now finds itself – having to break British law or hold a referendum without British consent in order to decide on its own future. We may imagine that the deployment of the police against the independence movement is impossible here, but when it comes to state politics and the political and economic necessities of suzerain states anything is possible. Over the past three centuries the British state has consistently used force against its own subjects to keep them in line. Northern Ireland and the shoot to kill and internment policies of the decades before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement are good indicators of how Britain will address serious threats to its territorial control. In its willingness to use brute force against dissent Britain is no different to Spain.

In light of this the Scottish independence movement would do well at this juncture to develop a good hermeneutic of suspicion. Whatever shape the next independence referendum does take it will most definitely not be the same as the first. The stakes are higher for both sides. It may even be argued that the outcome poses an existential threat to the loser; whatever side comes out on bottom will never be the same. Force is now a real possibility, and London has now had the example of Madrid. If we find ourselves in such a standoff we must follow the Catalan example and keep the head while marching unabatedly to the finish line. No nation can be dominated without its consent, and that consent we must never given.


Protests in Barcelona after former Catalan president arrested

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10 thoughts on “Reassessing the Terrain for a 2018 Referendum

  1. Jason Michael may well be correct when he says that no nation can be dominated without its consent. But he’s a bit late in urging that Scotland must not give that consent to the British state. Because that is precisely what we did on Thursday 18 September 2014.

    On that day, for the fifteen hours that polls were open, the people of Scotland held in their hands total political in a manner and to an extent that is exceptional, if not unprecedented, in even the best functioning democracies.

    Sovereignty is vested in the people. The people are the ultimate arbiters of public policy. All legitimate political authority derives from the people. To be legitimate, political authority must derive from the people. Only the people can legitimise political authority. However this is stated or explicated, it ultimately distils down to the most fundamental principle of democracy – popular sovereignty. The sovereignty of the people. Only the people are sovereign. There is no sovereignty other than the sovereignty of the people.

    While the sovereignty of the people is an abiding principle, the exercise of this sovereignty is, in practice and of necessity, mediated by the democratic institutions and processes adopted by and pertinent to the nation. Just as the individual is rarely, if ever, able to fully exercise their personal sovereignty – in the sense of always and only doing what suits them – so it is only under vanishingly rare circumstances that the electorate has an opportunity to act as the ultimate political authority.

    Democracy is pooled sovereignty. The sovereignty of the individual is not diluted by being pooled. But the exercise of that sovereignty is both distributed and narrowly applied. Which is perfectly adequate for most of society’s purposes. Democracy is not significantly diminished by the compromises we make in order that the machinery of society can run without the full and constant attention of every individual.

    In elections, the exercise of sovereignty is constrained by the process. We make choices, by means of a prescribed procedure, only from among a small number of candidates offering a limited range of policy options. A system of representative democracy, such as we have, involves using elections to give – or, more accurately to lend – politicians the authority to decide, subject to various checks and balances. The fundamental principle of popular sovereignty means that we do so always with the assumption and on the condition that we, the electors, retain the sole and exclusive authority to decide who decides.

    Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014 was different. What was at stake in that referendum was the issue of ultimate political authority in Scotland. The matter of who decides the matter of who decides. In that referendum, the people of Scotland were asked to make a simple but portentous choice. Holding ultimate political power in our hands, we were asked to choose between keeping that power to ourselves, and handing it to a British political elite which we do not elect and which is not democratically accountable to us.

    We chose the latter. By voting No, Scotland gave its consent to being dominated by the British state. That No vote was effectively a licence granted to the British establishment to do with Scotland as they please. Being undefined, the No vote could mean whatever the British political elite wanted it to mean. Is it any wonder they view Scotland with such obvious contempt?

    The task now is to rectify the fateful mistake we made in 2014. We must revoke the licence we gave to the British state. We must re-assert our right to decide who decides. We must snatch back the power to fully exercise our sovereignty. We must recover our dignity and restore our authority. And we must do so urgently.

    Asking for a Section 30 order is most definitely not the way to do this. To petition the British government for permission to exercise our right of self-determination is to confirm the British state as a superior authority. It is to accept the very licence which it is our urgent and essential purpose to rescind. It is to allow that the right of self-determination is in the gift of the British state, rather than being vested wholly in the people of Scotland, to be exercised entirely at our discretion.

    Talk of requesting a Section 30 order isn’t “reassessing the terrain for a 2018 referendum” so much as revisiting the terrain of the 2014 referendum.

    We need to approach #Referendum2018 with a new mindset. A more assertive mindset. A mindset which actively resists the idea of the supremacy of the British state rather than meekly pandering to it. A mindset which rejects the alien concept of the sovereignty of the British parliament in favour of the democratic principle of the sovereignty of Scotland’s people.

    We need to rid ourselves of the indoctrinated notion that independence is something we must ask for and fully embrace the fact that it is already ours for the taking. Scotland is not a part of another nation asking permission to leave. Scotland is an equal partner in a political union giving notice of its intention to dissolve that union.

    We don’t need to explain this choice. We are under no obligation to justify it. Independence is normal. Restoring normality requires neither explanation nor justification. It is the proposal to keep Scotland in a political union that is so evidently detrimental to our national interests which must be explained. It is the Union which must be justified.

    We gave our consent to be dominated. That was a mistake. It’s easily fixed. We simply withdraw that consent.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. A good argument, in theory at least. But it could just as easily be pointed out that holding a referendum without London’s ‘permission’ would simply be handing WM the right to strike down the result, assuming the majority was indeed for Indy. Or there could be a campaign to boycott any such unauthorised vote, which would then be grounds for calling the result into question.

      Who would be a politician in such ‘interesting’ times?

      My main worry though is that as we are now seeing, even though the will of the people may be sovereign in Scotland, that sovereign will can still be manipulated on a massive scale never before seen, manipulated skilfully, expertly and surreptitiously by fake news and misinformation carefully crafted to trigger our unconscious emotions, rather than our rational judgement.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. …and I believe you are correct in this assessment. I would only like to clarify here that my reassessment of the terrain was not to seek a Section 30 order, but to prepare for the likely resistance of Britain to another referendum. I am sure we can agree that it is a real possibility now that London will not only refuse to give its consent but will go as far as Madrid and declare any referendum we do hold illegal.

      You are also correct in saying that we gave our consent to be dominated on 18 September 2014. But here I would like to argue the point that the giving of consent is always in the present continual – that we have the right to refuse at any time. What I had hoped to convey was that we must not consent to be dominated against our will in the manner that Catalonia is being dominated and violated by Spain.


  2. I have always wondered why we needed to go cap in hand to ask for permission to hold a referendum. Since it is highly unlikely to be given what would be our next step anyway? We need to take the bull by the horns and go for it. Let’s hope Nicola sees it that way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Presumably to show how reasonable and civilised we are. If permission is refused it’s the other side who will be seen to be out of order. That at least would be the argument …


  3. If no permission is given for a 2nd vote then British Unionists living in Scotland would very likely organise a boycott rendering any result in favour of self determination very hard to follow through.

    That said, get it up thum!

    Bring it on!


  4. It’s not as simple as asking for permission and it being granted or refused. As with the previous request and the Edinburgh Agreement which resulted, the issue became one of the terms under which the referendum would be conducted. If a request were made again, now, I doubt Mrs May would refuse outright, more likely we’d get the “now’s not the time” response. No doubt kicking it down the road until sometime never would be the establishment ideal, but failing that such a response would at least buy the time necessary for EU nationals to be excluded from the franchise. Longer term I see the post brexit Uk embarking on a “take back control” constitutional reform of plebiscites which will exclude the under 18’s and require a 2/3 majority.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The Scottish electorate have had enough of the capitalists greed and the mismanagement of government Nicola is correct there is no panic they are digging there own grave and their problem is they don’t have the means or brains to alter their direction the further they go the better for Scotland and Independence Ireland and Wales will follow


  6. Independence is Scotlands only hope.
    We have resources that many countries ten times our size would would go to war for
    Scotland must be the only country ever to discover oil and become poorer.


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