I'm slightly puzzled that there's been so much commentary over recent days about something that the former SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter posted on Twitter a full three months ago. Maybe it's simply because she's got half the planet blocked and it's taken this long for the news to filter through. This is what she said -
"If Supreme Court finds Scotland Act prevents Scotparl legislating for an indyref, and if there is no movement from UK Gov & allies (including Labour), pro-indy party parties will campaign in next GE for a mandate to start indy negotiations with UK Gov. It will be a de facto referendum. A successful outcome will not lead to a declaration of independence. There is no route to independence that does not involve the agreement of UK Gov. But it would be politically impossible to continue to deny a mandate for a second referendum in the face of a Yes win."
Hunter is being criticised on two counts - firstly for apparently giving London an absolute veto on independence by saying "there is no route to independence" without Westminster's consent, and secondly for absurdly negating the entire purpose of an plebiscite election by suggesting it's just a mechanism to achieve yet another mandate for an independence referendum.
Now, to put it mildly, I do not hold any brief for Hunter, who I have witnessed over the years disgracefully treating countless decent independence supporters as something only fit to be scraped off her shoe. I'm not sure I'd class myself as one of her victims, but I've certainly had a few run-ins with her, and needless to say she blocked me as soon as the penny dropped that I had absolutely zero interest in becoming one of her zombie disciples on the various identity politics dogmas she adheres to. But all the same, one half of the criticism she's facing in this particular case is mostly unjustified. The other half of the criticism is very much justified, and I'll come to that later in this blogpost.
"There is no route to independence that does not involve the agreement of the UK Government" is merely a statement of the obvious. The reason it's causing anger is that there's a section of the Yes movement that has been seduced by the notion that independence can be achieved by going over the head of the UK Government, either by "dissolving the Union" as Peter A Bell would put it, or by seeking international recognition for a Scottish state. Indeed, there are a lot of people who think that these are the only routes by which it's even possible to achieve indy, and perhaps even the only 'valid' ways of achieving it, ie. the only ways that are consistent with maintaining Scottish dignity.
But in practice it wouldn't work. Scotland can't simply dissolve the Union, because the UK is the legal successor state to the Scottish state that signed the Treaty of Union - in other words the only entity that can legally dissolve the Union on Scotland's or anyone else's behalf is the UK itself. And while achieving independence via international recognition is theoretically possible, the countries that have actually managed it in recent decades are not really comparable to Scotland. The states they were seceding from were generally seen as failed states in one way or another, and were not western allies. For example, Slovenia and Croatia seceded from a Yugoslavia that had just barely ceased to be a one-party state, Kosovo seceded from a Serbia that had recently been at war with NATO, and the Baltic states seceded from a USSR that had just emerged from an attempted coup by communist hardliners. By contrast, when Catalonia attempted to unilaterally secede from a long-standing member of both the EU and NATO, not a single country anywhere in the whole world recognised its independence. Not even 'rogue' countries like Venezuela or Syria, that might have had a vested interest in embarrassing a western state by giving Catalonia the status of "partial international recognition", were willing to take the plunge. The same would undoubtedly prove to be true for Scotland. We might like to fondly think that the UK is a tainted brand or an international laughing stock, and in some ways that's true, but it still carries enough clout around the world to deter other countries from doing something as drastic as giving recognition to a new state on its claimed territory.
To be clear, I have no time for the notion that the Catalan parliament made a strategic mistake by unilaterally declaring independence. It showed up the Spanish state for what it is - something light-years from a modern liberal democracy - and in the long run that will make Catalan independence more likely, rather than less so. And it may be that eventually we'll reach the point, as a last resort, where Scotland will be fully justified in declaring independence itself. But we have to be realistic enough to understand that such a declaration would only have symbolic value - it wouldn't directly bring about independence in the real world. Starved of international recognition, the only other way UDI could become meaningful would be if new facts on the ground were created due to sources of authority such as the judiciary and the police giving their allegiance to the new self-declared state. Given what we know about the conservatism of the Scottish establishment, that seems phenomenally improbable.
But does that mean independence is unachievable? Quite the reverse, and I think where people are going wrong is that they are massively underestimating what the impact would be of the Scottish people giving a mandate for independence in a free and fair vote, whether that be in a consultative referendum or in a plebiscite election. Ask yourself one simple question: if the London political parties didn't think an independence mandate would lead to independence, why would they be going to such extreme lengths to prevent Scotland voting on independence? In reality, an outright independence mandate would change everything. Pro-indy parties would cease to press for a vote on independence, and would instead start pressing for the outcome of the vote to be implemented. Parliamentary non-cooperation and/or abstention tactics would be consistent with that aim, and even if the current SNP leadership are instinctively reluctant to go down that road, they might find their own party members and voters leave them with very little choice. The London parties would beg the Scottish people to "move on" from voting for pro-indy parties to give them a get-out clause for ignoring the independence mandate, and to render any attempts at parliamentary non-cooperation redundant. But if the voters refuse to "move on", where is there left for London to go? There would be an ongoing constitutional crisis that would have to be resolved by negotiation, sooner or later.
For me, the Holy Grail has never been to secure independence without London's consent, but instead to secure an independence mandate - if necessary without London's consent. That's partly because only the latter is legally achievable, but also partly because it would probably be sufficient to achieve the leverage we need. In fact, one of the very things I've found so objectionable about Mhairi Hunter and Pete Wishart in recent years is the way they've cynically conflated the two completely different concepts - they've pretended that because UDI would be illegal and ineffective, achieving an independence mandate without London's consent would also somehow be illegal and ineffective. They must have known all along that was bogus logic, and the only explanation for them pushing it so relentlessly is that they were terrified of actually winning an independence mandate and being expected to do something with it. I can see no sign of either of them being honest enough to admit that they've been forced into a complete reversal of their position by Nicola Sturgeon belatedly embracing a plebiscite election.
The emotional difficulty of accepting she was wrong about the wisdom of a 'go-it-alone' vote may explain the nonsense in Hunter's tweet about a plebiscite election producing a mandate for a referendum. Now, it's entirely possible that negotiations following a mandate in a plebiscite election would lead to a referendum, but the point is such an outcome would be a major concession by the pro-independence side to achieve a negotiated settlement. Mhairi Hunter seems to think it would be our primary aim in a plebiscite election!
Ms Hunter has never come across as the shrewdest strategic thinker, or for that matter as someone who places independence ahead of other priorities, so perhaps her comment needs to be seen in that context. But there again, she's also known for being extremely close to Nicola Sturgeon, and if her comment is in any way reflective of Ms Sturgeon's own thinking...well, that would be very troubling indeed.
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