Independence is not about process politics. It is about democracy.
The National, 21 June 2022
The air is thick with talk of referenda. How one is held, its status, who can initiate it and has to agree to it, and the timetable indicated by Nicola Sturgeon and Angus Robertson of October 2023.
All of this is to be expected but what it misses is several-fold. This all concentrates on process rather than substance, misses the big picture here of democracy, and overlooks the nuances of public opinion.
There is significant popular support for the principle of Scotland’s right to decide its own future, with sizeable majorities consistently agreeing with this proposition. This is good news for the independence cause and bad news for the union. Add to this that the phrase has resonance and popular reach as well as power; it cuts through big time to the public.
But does the Scottish Government have a mandate for an indyref? Christopher Carman of Glasgow University found last week when he tested three propositions – one favourable to the Scottish Government, one neutral and one unfavourable – that all produced majorities for the Scottish Government having a mandate, ranging from 61% to 53%.
This is all positive for independence but when it comes to timing public opinion is resistant of a referendum in the next year and a half. YouGov last week found 28% support for a vote by the end of 2023 and 42% support for a vote in the next five years – with 41% opposed. Those numbers can change but indicate the broad feeling of voters in Scotland.
Considering the type of referendum that could be held brings up issues about who has power and should have power in such a decision, and the role of Westminster and the UK Government. Is there a role for what is called a “consultative referendum” (ignoring that all referendums in the UK are technically consultative)? This would be one which the Scottish Government advances and agrees to but which is undertaken without Westminster approval. There will be no “unofficial” referendum and there will be no “wildcat” referendum. Talk of such initiatives is just that – and often raised to discredit independence.
As Aileen McHarg, Professor of Public Law at Durham University observes: “It is quite astonishing that a referendum which, if it goes ahead, will be on the basis of legislation held to be validly enacted by a court, can be described as ‘unofficial’.” What is critical in this is that for all the legal dimensions at play, what matters most is politics, and the latter will nearly always triumph over the former.
There will be no unilateral declaration of independence. Such a pronouncement has no legal standing because independence involves being recognised by other states. UDIers on the independence side fail to acknowledge that Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2017 was not recognised by any state anywhere in the world – which did not advance the Catalonian cause.
Let’s imagine that Scotland holds a vote next year without the agreement of Westminster. This would be boycotted by the No side – taking us partly down the Catalan route. In 2014 we had a 45% Yes vote on a 85% turnout; such a vote would more than likely result in a 85% Yes vote on a 45% turnout. This would amount to exactly the same 38% share of the electorate turning out for independence on both occasions, mobilised for Yes, while the only difference would be the non-participation of the No side.
It would not advance independence, nor would it address those who still need to be convinced and won over, and any such an initiative could even worry and put some off about the merits of independence in the future.
There is a need to understand the current power play operating within Scotland, and the contest for legitimacy between the Scottish and UK Governments. Nicola Sturgeon’s call for an indyref by the end of 2023 is an attempt to exert pressure on Westminster – not only about calling a vote, but who calls it and who has legitimacy in Scotland. Connected to this it is an attempt to mobilise and enforce a degree of self-discipline and focus in the SNP and the wider independence movement.
Independence referendums usually occur around the world when there is a pre-existing consensus for change. Academic Matt Qvortrup has studied the global environment of such votes, and found thirty plus referendums on independence in which nearly always the result is an emphatic vote for statehood. Think of Norway in 1905 (184 votes against independence), Iceland in 1944 (99.5% for independence), or more recently South Sudan in 2011 (98.3%).
The two exceptions in terms of votes lost so far have been Scotland and Quebec. Ideally an indyref should be held when there is a likelihood of Scotland voting by a decisive majority for independence, allowing both sides to accept the result, and the country to unite and come together.
One major issue for independence is that all the focus on an indyref takes away from the fundamentals of substance and democracy. It prioritises process and makes an indyref an end in itself rather than seeing it as a means to an end. Independence is about the principle of Scotland’s right to decide, exercising that mandate, and the issues of substance and democracy – the last two of which need championed and work undertaken on.
The more brusque the UK Government is of Scotland’s indyref, the more it reinforces popular support for Scotland’s right to decide, strengthens the mandate argument, and critically, makes independence more synonymous with democracy.
This latter point is fundamental. In so doing independence becomes strengthened and the case for the union weakened and undermined. Not only that, the entire rationale for the union would be completely and utterly changed – to the detriment of the union. Ciaran Martin, lead negotiator for the UK Government on the agreement on the 2014 vote, has stated that the UK Government denying a democratic request for an indyref with popular support changes the union from “a union of consent” to “a union upheld by law” – narrowly interpretated by the UK Government.
Independence supporters need to see this bigger picture. The UK and Scottish Governments implicitly know this and, that underneath the public rhetoric their main difference beyond who can call such a referendum is the question of timing.
The UK Government know they cannot indefinitely hold out and deny Scotland a vote if a consistent majority of Scots want one. There is no foreseeable future whereby Scotland is held in the union as a prisoner against our collective will. Such an eventuality, even for the shortest period, makes the case for independence and completely undermines the case for the union.
This is a live, ongoing issue. Scotland will have its indyref, if not in 2023, at some point in the future, and more than likely, sooner than later. Underneath all the noise, charge and counter-charge are many thoughtful voices who were part of Better Together in 2014 and are still pro-union, recognise this basic fact privately: that sometime soon Scotland will have another vote to decide this issue.
We need to understand what this is all about. It is not about process or timing, but the principle of Scotland’s right to decide its collective future, the meaning of democracy and democratic legitimacy. That focus should never fall from people’s horizon.