Do you remember the 2011 AV referendum? Probably not. It came and went in the blink of an eye, a few months after the 2010 Westminster election. It was part of the deal that Nick Clegg did with David Cameron in return for forming a coalition with the Tories. The Tories shook hands on it and then did what they do best. They waited until after the parliamentary summer recess to advertise it. They then bounced the Lib Dems into having said AV referendum in May 2011, along with the European elections. When you take out the winter recess, the Lib Dems and others were given approx. six months to campaign on a system that most people in Britain aren’t familiar with. They played on people’s natural caution of anything new and romped home on a 2:1 vote against. Like taking sweeties off a wean, as they say in this part of the world.
So how did the Tories manage to pull this off? It was quite simple. They persuaded the Lib Dems to give up control. Had the Lib Dems refused to form a coalition with the Tories and instead acted as honest broker in that government, voting as and when they preferred on various issues, their position would have been completely different. They would have been wielding real power. They could have stopped things like student tuition fees and the de facto privatisation of the English NHS. But the lure of the fancy offices, ministerial positions and comfy chauffeured cars proved too much. The Lib Dems handed over true power for an illusion of power along with control of the timing of the AV referendum and the rest has been consigned, along with the Lib Dems, to history.
Which brings us to this week’s announcement on Indy Ref 2. It’s basically back to Section 30 and a referendum at some time, which we are going to prepare for, at some time, if we’re allowed. (Yes, we know what Angus Robertson said and we think you should ignore it as a very careful, plausible deniability curveball. You don’t honestly think he could come out with a statement like that, without it being planned?) The one interesting bit was that for the first time there was a hint that there might be a world beyond Section 30. Nicola Sturgeon referred to ‘forging ahead, if necessary, without a Section 30’. That’s heartening, but the flip side of that statement, is that we’re heading down that route again. And that is a route which Westminster absolutely, totally control.
Let’s pause and lay this out a bit. There are currently three options that we could feasibly take right now. One is pursuing a Section 30 with a view to having a referendum. The second would be to declare the next Westminster election a plebiscite. And the final option would be to declare the 2026 Holyrood election a plebiscite. Let’s go through them.
If we go down the Section 30 route, we hand control to Westminster. Westminster can refuse a section 30. Or they can grant it, but only under certain conditions. How about a three question referendum? Or how about a two question referendum, but in six months time? Or they could refuse a section 30, watch the Scottish Government waste two years taking it through court and then offer one of these options as a compromise. Whatever they choose, it will not be our choice and it will not be in our favour. Section 30 as we are tired of saying, is a complete dead duck.
So, how about a 2024 plebiscite for Westminster? That initially might seem a reasonable option, except that the Fixed Terms Parliament Act has now been rendered redundant by the Tories in Westminster. With their majority they could call a snap election at any point they wanted and leave us trailing. And as we are also tired of pointing out, we haven’t prepared properly for either a referendum or a plebiscite. 2024 would be doable, but not 2023. We are too far behind in the polls.
Which brings us to the third option. 2026, Holyrood. This is a fixed date and can only be altered by a two thirds majority in the Scottish Parliament, which the unionists don’t have. It gives enough preparation time. The ballot would be in Scotland and it would also allow time for legal challenges. It means we don’t have to wrangle with the Electoral Commission over a referendum question, which has also recently been taken over by Westminster. We really, really hope that if the Scottish Government are going to go to court that they are not going to waste time with Section 30 and instead sue for the right to self determination under Article 1 of the UN Charter. The Treaty of Union is arguably a direct violation of that article and it would be time usefully spent while we are waiting.
We know you don’t want to hear this. We don’t particularly want to say it, but it has to be said. If we are going to gain independence, we need to have control of the process and the timing. The last time we had control was in 2021 and the next time will be 2026. Let’s spend that time usefully making the case, doing whatever court cases we need to and making proper preparations. We missed the bus in 2021. We need to catch it in 2026. What we must not do is to jump the gun and get independence consigned to the shelf for another generation. If you want to battle and win against your opponent, do not allow them to choose either the time or the place of the battleground. For if you do, you will surely fail.