The reaction piece I wrote for the International Business Times on Friday, entitled 'Why a Second Scottish Independence Referendum May Happen Sooner Than You Think', has now been published HERE. It's also on Yahoo News HERE. As I said yesterday, my thinking has moved on slightly since I wrote it - for example I said that (barring a UK exit from the EU) the SNP would have to make clear for the next two Holyrood elections that they were not planning to hold another referendum over the course of the forthcoming parliamentary term. I maybe wouldn't be quite so definite about that now, because there's at least a slight chance that things may look different if "the vow" unravels completely. However, there are obviously huge risks attached to trying again too soon, and I'm sure everyone involved will be suitably cautious about it.
Meanwhile, Alex Salmond attempted yesterday to break us out of the straitjacket of thinking that we necessarily have to be aiming for another referendum. That led to cretinous and hysterical claims in the right-wing press and the Labour party (is there a difference between the two?) that the SNP were plotting "UDI" or "a coup". In fact, all Salmond was doing was pointing out that there are two types of electoral mandate available - one is victory in a parliamentary election, the other is victory in a referendum. The two aren't qualitatively different, because a mandate at a parliamentary election would only qualify as legitimate if it was made absolutely crystal-clear in advance that a vote for the SNP was a vote for independence. (Remember that part of the reason the SNP proposed a referendum was precisely that people might otherwise have assumed that a vote for the SNP was for independence.) OK, you might quibble that there is still no reason why the London government would automatically accept that mandate, but nor is there any reason why they would automatically accept a mandate from a consultative referendum, which is what the SNP were essentially proposing in both 2007 and 2011. So what is the difference?
It seems to me that Salmond had two distinct purposes in making his remarks. Firstly, he was trying to reassure Yes supporters that we can still move purposefully towards independence without a referendum in the near future, and that we can do it by securing parliamentary mandates for more powers, until we hopefully get to the point where we're so close to the powers of an independent country that the final step will seem like a trivial one. Secondly, he was trying to keep the London establishment guessing, because they probably took it as read that a referendum would be the only possible route to independence, and may have had ideas about how to thwart that. It's harder to hit a moving target, and while there may be differing views about the legality of a consultative referendum, there's no disputing that it would always be theoretically possible for the SNP to stand at a Holyrood election and submit a policy of independence to the people for consideration. So it's a timely reminder that the options for Scotland exercising national self-determination can never be closed off, no matter what the Jack Straws of this world may believe.
In any case, this kind of discussion simply takes the SNP back to an older tradition. I recall in the 1990s seeing a young Nicola Sturgeon in the Question Time audience demanding an explanation from Donald Dewar of why Labour had moved away from their previous acceptance that there would be a mandate for independence if the SNP won a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster. That notion seems rather quaint in retrospect, because of course under the Westminster system a majority can be won on as little as 35% of the vote. But the fact that it was taken seriously so recently tells you something interesting. (Archive footage of that Dewar v Sturgeon skirmish would also be fascinating to watch - few would have guessed at the time that it was our first First Minister v our fifth First Minister.)
I suppose the million dollar question is how we actually get to Devo Max, or something close to it, without the leverage of a looming independence referendum. It's going to be tough, but one possible answer is that it might happen through mutual perceived self-interest. It's quite possible for a London government (either this one or more likely a future one) to honestly conclude that Devo Max is the only thing that will ever kill off the prospect of independence, and to do so at exactly the same time that the SNP are relentlessly pressing for Devo Max because of an honest belief that it would bring independence closer. We'd only find out who was right later.
A further possibility is that an element of luck might be involved - the SNP could find themselves holding the balance of power in a hung parliament at Westminster. Obviously the bigger the number of seats they win next year, the greater the chance there is of that happening, but it would still largely be decided by chance.
And here's an option that few seem to have considered - what if the SNP do move to hold a consultative referendum in the coming years, but on the subject of Devo Max rather than independence? The result wouldn't be binding, but a big Yes vote would certainly put terrific moral pressure on the London government. OK, that takes us back to the question of whether Holyrood has the legal power to hold a consultative constitutional referendum, but at least it would keep Lallands Peat Worrier busy!
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