I've been reading with interest Craig Murray's blogpost about the "Scotland's Right to Choose" document, which he regards as "schizophrenic" for its simultaneous assertions that Scotland has an inalienable right to self-determination, and that it can only exercise that right with the permission of the UK government. He draws attention to this comment from Nicola Sturgeon -
"Of course, I anticipate that in the short term we will simply hear a restatement of the UK government’s opposition.
But they should be under no illusion that this will be an end of the matter.
We will continue to pursue the democratic case for Scotland’s right to choose.
We will do so in a reasonable and considered manner."
Craig reads "continue to pursue the democratic case" as meaning the response to a Westminster veto will be yet more SNP campaigning for yet more mandates, which might help the SNP stay in power at devolved level for a few more years but is unlikely to bring independence any closer - indeed it could push it further away. Perhaps worryingly, this interpretation ties in perfectly with Mhairi Hunter's oft-stated view on what should happen if Westminster says no - she thinks we should just accept that response and redouble our campaigning until Westminster eventually breaks and passes a Section 30 order, no matter how long that takes. To use the words of our old friend Kevin Baker, that strategy can be summed up as "If something isn't working, do it again, only HARDER!!!!" It's an absolutely hopeless idea, and if by any chance that's what the SNP leadership are planning, they'll surely have to be persuaded to have a rethink sooner or later.
However, I'm not as pessimistic about the SNP's intentions as Craig is. In fact, I'm somewhere in between the two extremes. On the one hand, I've never thought "just trust Nicola" is good enough, because trust is a two-way process. If we are to trust the leadership completely, it's only fair that the leadership should trust us by keeping us up to speed with their broad intentions. I was particularly unimpressed by the suggestion a while back that the role of rank and file SNP members and Yes supporters is to campaign for independence, and that we shouldn't worry our pretty little heads about "process", which is solely the leadership's domain. Neither do I buy into the notion that it's not possible for the leadership to keep us in the loop because that would deprive them of the advantage of surprise in their dealings with the UK government. As I pointed out a few days ago, it would be perfectly possible to say to London: "A referendum is happening in autumn 2020. We want it to happen as part of an agreed process between the two governments, but it is happening anyway." That's not a million miles away from what Alex Salmond did after the 2011 election, and it seemed to work out OK. No rabbits out of hats were required, just forthrightness and resolve.
However, unlike Craig I can see plausible alternative interpretations of "continuing to pursue the democratic case". The implied threat might well carry more punch than simply a thousand more stirring Ian Blackford speeches about how Scotland's voice must be respected. The most obvious possibility is that the Scottish Government could react to a Westminster veto by saying "We have bent over backwards to do this by the gold standard route, and the whole world can now see that the UK government are behaving wholly unreasonably and in breach of the principle of democratic self-determination. We will therefore legislate for an independence referendum and defend that legislation in the Supreme Court if necessary. We remain willing to open negotiations with the UK government at any time until the referendum campaign is underway." If London's legal challenge to any Referendum Bill succeeds, there would then be the option of using the 2021 Holyrood election to secure an outright mandate for independence. I know the SNP leadership have in the past ruled out the possibility of using an election in that way, but their position on other points of strategy has evolved, so I wouldn't totally dismiss the possibility that there could be a further change of heart.
So the moment of truth will come in a few weeks when we see how Nicola Sturgeon replies to the inevitable Westminster veto. If at that point there is no sign of her doing anything other than building towards the 2021 election to win yet another referendum mandate that will be ignored, then it may be reasonable to conclude that the emperor has no clothes, and to start an internal campaign within the SNP for an urgent change of direction. But I'm still hopeful that there will be a lot more substance to Ms Sturgeon's reply than that. Even if the instinct of senior people within the party is to proceed as cautiously as possible, it must have occurred to the most thoughtful among them that continually going back to the electorate to ask for more mandates is likely to produce diminishing returns over time, because the electorate will wise up to the fact that the SNP are all talk and no action. Some voters may become demoralised enough to start abstaining, while others may defect to the Greens if Patrick Harvie decides to fill the vacuum by making Yes supporters a more radical offer. The nightmare scenario would be if SNP voters start drifting towards fringe parties that have no chance of winning seats - that could rob us of the pro-indy majority at Holyrood. SNP strategists will surely want to prevent that happening, and that will mean being seen to have taken meaningful action against London's "no".
My own view, for what it's worth, is that the road to independence in the absence of a Section 30 order is unlikely to involve UDI and asking for international recognition. The UK is not Spain, and I do still believe that if a credible mandate for independence is established, the pressure on the London government to negotiate will eventually bear fruit. What would be a credible mandate? If the 2021 election is used to double as a referendum, the pro-indy parties would need to win a majority of seats and perhaps a majority of votes on the list ballot as well to be on the safe side. If there is a consultative referendum that is boycotted by unionists, the Yes side would probably need to exceed their 1.6 million votes from 2014 to be taken seriously.