I'm beginning to realise what it must have felt like to be a social democrat in about 1980, finding yourself by default in a shrinking middle ground as political debate becomes ever more polarised around you. It seems to me that the two extremes of the debate on how to achieve independence are just as hopeless as each other at the moment. On the one hand, I had people responding to my post on New Year's Day by saying that Nicola Sturgeon shouldn't even be asking for a Section 30 order, but should instead simply be "repealing the Act of Union". I asked how that would even be possible, given that the constitution is explicitly reserved to Westminster. The response was either pseudo-legal gibberish about how the Act of Union supposedly gives the Scottish Parliament a unilateral right to withdraw from the UK (hint: it really doesn't) or a link to Craig Murray's piece explaining that it is normal for countries to become independent without a referendum, and that it is usually done simply by securing recognition from other states.
In principle, I actually agree with Craig that independence is ultimately a matter for international law rather than UK domestic law. But the snag is that none of the countries that bypassed the hurdle of domestic law in the manner that Craig suggests (for example Slovenia or Croatia) did so just four or five years after their own citizens rejected independence in a free referendum. Few states, if any, are going to recognise an independent Scotland until it has been demonstrated that the No vote of 2014 has been unambiguously overturned by a fresh vote, which ideally would mean another referendum, or less ideally an election. So even if you go down the road Craig wants, it just takes you straight back to the original problem of needing a clear mandate for independence. There isn't any shortcut.
But equally unpromising is the position that some people are attributing to the SNP leadership, which implicitly recognises an absolute Westminster veto by accepting that a) independence cannot happen without a referendum, and b) a referendum cannot happen without a Section 30 order. The only plan for getting around a veto would appear to be to shame London into backing down by securing mandate after mandate for a referendum, no matter how many years or decades that takes. So if London says "now is not the time", we campaign some more for an independence referendum, and "take it to the people" in the 2021 Holyrood election. And if we get another mandate but the reply is "now is still not the time", we campaign even harder and "take it to the people" in the 2026 Holyrood election. And on and on into infinity: in other words a recipe for Scotland never becoming independent. The example of Catalonia gives the lie to the notion that no central government would have the nerve to keep saying no indefinitely.
Is there a compromise position between these two extremes that might actually be more effective anyway? I would guess that the "dissolve the union" camp would be less hostile to the notion of securing another seemingly needless mandate for an indyref if there were two assurances: firstly, that only one more mandate will be sought, meaning that if London are still intransigent after that an alternative course of action will be followed, and b) the new mandate will be sought very quickly. If, for example, a snap Westminster general election was held this year, and the SNP decided to use that to have one last go at securing a mandate that London might actually respect, that wouldn't slow things down much at all. The snag, of course, is that the timing of the next Westminster election is not in the SNP's control.
What is effectively in their control, though, is the timing of the next Holyrood election, because there is provision for an early election in certain circumstances. Nicola Sturgeon can't literally "call" a snap election, but it would be relatively easy for her to engineer one for the purposes of securing another indyref mandate. It's widely assumed she would never do that because of her instinctive caution, but I'm not actually sure the risks of an early Holyrood election would be as great as they appear. Yes, elections can throw up surprise results, but that generally only happens when the underdog party has an inspiring leader capable of turning things around on the campaign trail. Scottish Labour have...Richard Leonard. OK, Ruth Davidson is a different proposition, but there appears to still be a natural ceiling of around 30% on Scottish Tory support, so any real danger would have to come from Labour, and at the moment I just can't see that happening. Barring a very weird chain of events, I would suggest the worst-case scenario in an early Holyrood election would be the SNP returning to power once again as a minority government, but without a pro-independence majority. That would clearly be a sub-optimal outcome, but I'm not sure it should be considered awful enough to deter us from chasing a potentially huge reward if the election went well.
* * *
Scot Goes Pop fundraiser: If you'd like to help this blog keep going strong over what could be an epic few months, just a reminder that last year's fundraiser is still very much open for donations, and hasn't reached the target figure yet.