Boris Johnson could kill off any chances of independence virtually overnight if he was savvy enough and wanted to. The methodology would be easy – and to understand why it is worth just paying a bit of attention to what the independence movement has been promised.
It surprises me that after all this time there is not greater scrutiny of the words with which Nicola Sturgeon offers the movement false hopes of an approaching independence referendum. This is the official promise as it stands just now:
First, the First Minister will, well, do nothing. Then she will choose a moment at which she deems Covid to be ‘over’ (and as best as I can make out from what she has said, this can include the economic impacts). When Covid is ‘over’ the process of introducing a Referendum Bill will be started. The rate of progress of a Bill through Parliament is flexible and will depend on how much consultation is involved and the will of a government to drive it through. Could easily be six months say, definitely longer if public consultation was involved.
At that point a pro-independence majority will pass the Bill and it will move to becoming law. The First Minister is then working on the assumption that the UK Government, an individual or another unionist group will challenge the legality of the Bill (mandating a referendum on a constitutional matter which is reserved) and a debate will ensure about ‘consultative’ versus ‘ultra vires’ (outside the power of the Parliament).
This will work its way through the legal system presumably eventually reaching the Supreme Court. The time that will take is a bit of a ‘length of a piece of string’ question but easily a year or two potentially. From now that moment could comfortably be three or four years away and probably not less than two years even if all this moved at great pace.
But – and this is absolutely crucial – that is the end of the promised timeline. There is no ‘and then’. That is a very important omission. People have asked ‘but what then if the Supreme Court rules against?’. This isn’t the right question; we don’t know yet what the First Minister will do next if the Supreme Court rules in her favour.
Distinctly absent from her promises is that success in the Supreme Court will lead to the Scottish Government definitely holding a ‘legal’ referendum without cooperation from the UK Government. That is no small matter.
People have asked ‘but what then if the Supreme Court rules against a referendum Bill?’. Wrong question. What if it rules for?
It is no small matter because previously the First Minister has ruled out holding a ‘wildcat’ referendum, a phraseology she accepted. But that was defined as a referendum which was not agreed in cooperation between both parties.
Winning a Supreme Court case may settle the legality of the technical processes by which the referendum is held (polling stations, returning officers and all the rest). But it clearly isn’t a binding referendum and more than that, it isn’t a referendum which is supported by both sides of the debate. That might not matter had the First Minister not ruled out holding a non-mutual referendum – but she has.
Given the sophistry with which she has delicately phrased all talk of referendums since 2014 (to this day others in the SNP say there ‘will’ be a referendum this term, Sturgeon says that it is definitely her preference) it would be unwise-going-on-daft not to pay attention to this ellipsis, this clear and glaring gap in her proffered commitment.
A cynic might suggest that the entire process which has been outlined is primarily theatre, not a strategy for holding a referendum. It creates all the drama our First Minister loves – she plays the valiant rebel fighting the system, snubbed by the ‘hated’ Westminster, slugging her way through the ‘establishment legal system’ on your behalf and then being ‘martyred’ by an unjust system or delivering a historic victory.
Either way she can at this point pull out of the whole show – either ‘I did my best but you’ll need to elect us two votes SNP again in 2026 now’ or ‘see, even proving it is legal the UK won’t cooperate so you’ll have to elect us two votes SNP in 2026 now’. And if she chooses not to lead the party into another election (which seems likely) none of it will be her problem anyway.
None of this is about achieving independence but pretending to because no-one in the SNP leadership appears to have any clue as to how to progress the case for independence
We have had years and years of this ‘theatre of leadership’, not actually leading (as in taking people anywhere), just sort of Michael Jackson ‘moonwalking’ such that it looks like she’s moving when she’s not. This one has built-in climaxes and will produce much sound and fury for newspapers and the media.
But we come back to the key point – it doesn’t have a final curtain because the playwright has already said she will not recognise curtains unless the other side does. Perhaps she could U-turn and hold the referendum anyway. Perhaps the inevitable boycott of the whole thing by the unionist side, the resulting low turnout and the inevitable failure of anyone to recognise it as properly meaningful won’t make her feel that it will damage her reputation among the Liberal Establishment.
Perhaps, but let’s be serious here; it seems very unlikely. And it is unlikely because none of this is about achieving independence but pretending to because no-one in the SNP leadership appears to have any clue as to how to progress the case for independence.
I’ve set out in detail the alternative approach, the only one I believe will work, but I won’t waste your time going through it here. I will just predict that sooner or later this is what we’ll end up doing and the only real question is ‘before Sturgeon’s narcissistic theatre show or after’.
It’s just sobering to understand what this means. It means a savvy Boris Johnstone could kill this whole damned thing off overnight if he or any of the other Tories cared enough (they already know this is all bollocks). All he would have to do was write this letter:
“Dear Nicola, please don’t ask for a Section 30 Order because I will not give you one. Feel free to pass a Referendum Bill. We won’t challenge you but we will boycott and ignore every aspect of the whole thing and refuse to recognise the outcome in any way. Knock yourself out but this shall be my last correspondence on the issue. Best wishes, Boris.”
It would burn down Sturgeon’s theatre and leave us all standing among the ashes, contemplating the reality of where we are for the first time.
That would be healthy; believing that the course as currently set will take us to the destination we all want so much is not.