In the spring of 2017, when Theresa May first trotted out her notorious line of "now is not the time", we were reliably informed by journalists who had spoken to government sources that the choice of words had been extensively road-tested. The Tories wanted to refuse a Section 30 order, but they were anxious to do it in a way that wouldn't inflame Scottish public opinion and end up increasing support for independence. They apparently found in focus groups that "now is not the time" hit a sweet spot that got middle-of-the-road voters nodding along. It wasn't a flat no, it wasn't forever, but there was just too much going on with Brexit, it was too soon after the first indyref, so you know, not just now, Nicola.
Why do the Tories appear to be abandoning that circumspection? Why does "now is not the time" appear to be giving way to words that effectively mean "Scotland is a prisoner in the United Kingdom and is no longer allowed to leave"? If you were being generous, you would think that maybe there have been yet more focus groups, and more private polls, revealing a sea-change in Scottish public opinion which has left the Tories free to say any outrageous thing they want without have to worry about boosting support for independence or for an independence referendum. But that seems unlikely. I think they just got carried away with their (qualified) success in the 2017 general election and now believe that negativity about an independence referendum is an inexhaustible goldmine that will continue to generate votes for the Scottish Tories. It'll never win them a majority, or anything close, but they no longer care what the majority think, because they've found in our Alice Through the Looking Glass politics that they can "win" elections and reap the full rewards of that by coming a distant second and getting little more than one-quarter of the vote. They may still care to some extent about saving their "precious, precious union", but they've come to believe that will take care of itself while they get on with pursuing the narrow electoral interests of the Tory party.
The thing is, though, the union may not take care of itself. It's easy to dismissively say no to a referendum, and to give the impression of doing that with some sort of moral authority, when the most recent election produced substantial SNP losses (albeit from an exceptionally high base, which of course no-one ever bothers to mention). It'll be a rather different story after the European elections if opinion polls are correct in pointing to SNP gains. And it'll be a completely different story after any snap general election if opinion polls are right in suggesting the SNP could once again take more than 50 of the 59 Scottish seats. By that point, any further obstructionism from Westminster on a Section 30 order could start to look like what Tony Blair used to call "an unreasonable veto". There might then be considerable public sympathy for Nicola Sturgeon as she looks at ways forward in the absence of a Section 30 - assuming she can be persuaded to overcome her reluctance to act without London's 'permission'.
The other problem is that, paradoxically, the Tories' campaign against a referendum two years ago may only have been successful in producing seat gains because Theresa May had not actually said no to a referendum. If you want people to be motivated to go to the polls to stop Indyref 2, they have to believe the 'threat' is real. By moving from "now is not the time" to a flat no, the Scottish Tories may have destroyed their own electoral USP. We'll soon find out.
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Last night's blogpost was about the ITV reporter Peter A Smith, who in his interview with the First Minister wasn't remotely interested in the case for or against a referendum, but merely wanted to taunt her about the supposed fact that the all-powerful British state wasn't going to let her have one. "Yeah, and which Tory is going to agree to a referendum? Michael Gove? Boris Johnson? Who?" It strikes me that Iain Macwhirter has been arguing in much the same spirit recently - instead of being outraged at the thwarting of democratic Scottish mandates, his anger and scorn is directed at those who aren't 'realistic' enough to accept that Theresa May's veto is the end of the story. "And you think Jeremy Corbyn is going to give you your Section 30, do you? Get real." (I'm paraphrasing, by the way, before anyone jumps down my throat.)
This is really odd, because Iain spoke for all of us in 2011 by reacting incredulously to exactly the sort of views he is now espousing. He sat in a TV studio as John "The Gardener" McTernan informed the nation that the election of a majority SNP government was neither here nor there, and that there wasn't going to be an independence referendum because under our constitutional arrangements that was entirely Westminster's call to make. Iain told him in no uncertain terms that it was exactly that sort of arrogance that had just cost Labour power at Holyrood.
Iain has clearly been on something of a journey over the last eight years, because he is now the John McTernan in this debate. How he ended up there, and why he's quite so passionate in his embrace of the Westminster veto, is something of a mystery. He's been telling us for months that Nicola Sturgeon understands perfectly well that a pre-2021 referendum is impossible, and yet in his column on Sunday he expressed bafflement that she was now raising expectations for a vote she supposedly couldn't deliver. "The First Minister used to be an honest speaker who said what she meant, scorned waffle and spin, and wasn't afraid to face harsh realities. To see her resort to weasel words and obfuscation is saddening." Hmmm. Isn't it just possible that she is being honest, and she just happens to honestly disagree with Iain's assessment of whether an early referendum is achievable? Couldn't her announcement be reasonably interpreted as a sign that Iain has for some time been wide of the mark in his reading of her intentions? I make no pretence at being able to see inside her mind, but surely that's at least one logical possibility?
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In his comprehensive response to Iain Macwhirter's article, Wee Ginger Dug once again expressed his view that if a Section 30 order is not forthcoming, the best way forward would be to use the next Holyrood election to seek an outright mandate for independence. He believes that a consultative referendum held without a Section 30 wouldn't work out, because the broadcast media would ignore it and the unionist parties would boycott it. I agree that using the Holyrood election is a perfectly good plan, but I do think Paul is underestimating the potential of a consultative referendum. If the Supreme Court upheld a Referendum Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament, it would become the law of the land, and it would then be tricky for unionists to boycott it, and it would certainly be very hard for broadcasters to ignore it.
And remember Strathclyde Regional Council's consultative postal referendum on water services in 1994? That didn't receive a huge amount of pre-publicity and was boycotted by the Tories, and yet it somehow produced a turnout of over 70% - more than you'd get in a general election these days. If anyone has a recording of STV's live coverage of the result, it would be a good one to upload to YouTube. The reporter at the count (I think it might have been a youthful Bernard Ponsonby) told viewers that the organisers of the vote would be very happy if 40% of ballots had been returned. When the actual figure was announced, he started shouting: "That's an astonishing turnout! That's an astonishing turnout!"