Thursday, January 5, 2023

If gradualism has been "successfully" pursued by the nationalist movement for decades, why has it lasted decades, why isn't Scotland independent as a result of it, and why is the Scottish Parliament *losing* powers?

I've been taking a proper look at Marcus Carslaw's rather peculiar opinion piece in which he lambasts the idea of using the next Westminster election as a de facto independence referendum (which is official SNP policy, remember) but offers no alternative plan other than more "gradualism" and aiming for a "sufficiently large and consistent majority of voters" in support of independence.  The latter will be correctly interpreted as meaning Carslaw adheres to the anti-democratic belief that if a narrow majority of voters support independence, the outcome should be that Scotland remains indefinitely trapped in the United Kingdom against its will.

The fascination of the article is that, if it had appeared a year ago, it would have been seen as Carslaw acting as a loyal outrider for the SNP leadership, and trying to prepare the ground for the independence campaign being quietly shelved for the foreseeable future.  But now, if taken at face value, it's instead the peculiar spectacle of a 'do nothing' faction of the SNP rebelling against Nicola Sturgeon because they think she's being too radical.  As I said on Twitter, the worry must be that she'll be so disconcerted by the novel experience of being 'outflanked on caution' by others within her own party that she'll start to question what she's doing.

The language Carslaw uses is quite funny and unwittingly revealing in some places.  He queries whether the de facto referendum plan "fits into the gradualist strategy that the nationalist movement has successfully pursued for decades".  This begs an obvious question - if gradualism has been so "successful", why has it lasted "decades" and why isn't Scotland independent as a result of it?  And how would Carslaw measure further success in the future if gradualism is maintained?  A cynic might suggest he'd be looking for it to last several more decades without independence being achieved.

My own view on gradualism is fairly simple.  I don't think there was ever any realistic prospect of the Scottish public being bold enough to jump from direct London rule to outright independence in one go.  A devolved Scottish Parliament within the UK was always a necessary stepping stone, so until devolution was achieved twenty-four years ago, gradualism was the only game in town for the SNP.  But since devolution, gradualism only makes sense if it is actually effective in accruing more powers for the Scottish Parliament. If that was the case, I would continue to be an enthusiastic gradualist (and long-term readers will attest that I've never been dismissive of enhanced devolution in the way that other pro-indy bloggers are).  The problem is that the complete opposite has been happening in recent years - by the SNP's own admission, there has been a "power grab" from Westminster leading to devolved powers actually being taken away.  

I'd be interested to hear from Carslaw how he reconciles that trend with his narrative that gradualism has been a "success".  Perhaps he'd argue that the power grab has to be set against the new powers that were won in 2014/15 by the Smith Commission process.  But that doesn't make sense, because the Smith process wasn't actually a triumph for gradualism - it was instead triggered by an attempt to achieve independence as a "Big Bang" in 2014 and by the panicked unionist response to the near-success of that bid.  If anything, that's a precedent that suggests the best results are achieved by ditching gradualism.

Perhaps because he's an SNP staffer and office bearer at branch level, Carslaw is careful not to directly call for the de facto referendum policy to be reversed.  Instead, he demands clarity from the policy's proponents on how it "will deliver an independent Scotland".  But why and how can that be the test?  It's the SNP leadership and its fans in the 'do nothing' faction that have argued for years for immaculate constitutionality and legality, which is another way of saying that Scotland will only become independent at the UK government's discretion.  Carslaw is therefore knowingly demanding the impossible when he implicitly asks how a plan to achieve independence can succeed against London's wishes.  His own plan, such as it is, would fail exactly the same test.  He can't explain how twiddling our thumbs while we wait for a "sufficient majority" will deliver independence.  If anything, a supermajority in the polls for independence, even assuming that's remotely achievable, will just give Westminster an even greater incentive to refuse an independence referendum.  

Perhaps the most revealing word Carslaw uses in his article is "risk".  The de facto referendum is a "high-risk gamble" and is therefore unconscionable.  If Carslaw has any sort of creed or discernible strategy, it seems to amount to nothing more than the avoidance of risk.  But again, can he explain how running away from risk at all costs will deliver independence?  

The reality is that it is not in our own hands to deliver independence - that will always require agreement with London.  But what is in our own hands is to secure a mandate for independence.  Securing a mandate is a necessary prerequisite for negotiating an independence settlement.  You can only secure a mandate if you actually take the risk of seeking one.  The proponents of a de facto referendum, including to her credit Nicola Sturgeon, want to seek a mandate.  Carslaw, it would appear, does not.  He is therefore considerably further away from passing his own "delivery" test than those he denounces.

There's also a touch of intellectual dishonesty from Carslaw when he points out, as so many of us have, that using a Westminster election as a de facto referendum carries the disadvantage of disenfranchising both EU citizens and 16 and 17 year olds.  Instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that this means a snap Holyrood election should be used instead, he fatuously pretends that the problem is completely insoluble.

I can only speculate as to why a young independence supporter would be quite so evangelical about not actually trying to win independence for a few more decades.  He's probably in a decent position to seek selection as SNP parliamentary candidate, and perhaps he fancies a full three-decade career in Westminster before independence happens.  Maybe I'm doing him a disservice, but I'm struggling to think of a more plausible explanation.

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  1. “The reality is that it is not in our own hands to deliver independence - that will always require agreement with London.”
    I don’t regard that statement as correct. Fair enough if it just means that in your view London’s agreement will be required to make independence a practicable proposition - that’s something we can properly disagree on. But the legal and constitutional position is not obscure - there is no UK impediment to Scottish independence if the people of Scotland opt for it. So the crucial point is that after a Yes vote, if London refused to cooperate, Scotland could declare independence at its own hand. I’m with you on believing that London would actually concede the matter after a Yes vote, and that independence would then be agreed by negotiation. But the basic point stands, and it’s basic to the whole idea of Scottish independence. It’s also politically astute, because Into the bargain any notion that we need London’s say-so would only encourage them to withhold it anyway.

    1. "But the legal and constitutional position is not obscure - there is no UK impediment to Scottish independence if the people of Scotland opt for it."

      I'm not really sure what you mean by that. You're certainly not describing the position under UK domestic law.

    2. So what is the UK legal or constitutional impediment to Scottish independence? I've never been able to find any. This is a serious question.

    3. The reservation of the constitution to the UK Parliament under the Scotland Act. That's a statement of the obvious, but you asked the question, so I've answered it.

    4. That’s a reservation to the UK parliament of competence to make law affecting the constitution, so that Holyrood has no such competence. I don’t see how that affects the power of Scotland to secede. In UK constitutional terms, secession would be effected not by Holyrood, but by Scotland’s MPs, and there is no legal or constitutional impediment to their so doing, surely?

    5. I'm not sure if you'd call basic arithmetic a legal or a constitutional impediment, but either way that's the impediment. There are 59 Scottish MPs and there are 591 non-Scottish MPs. The 591 can very easily outvote the 59. Again that's a statement of the obvious, but you did ask.

    6. Sorry, but the point you make about votes in Westminster is not relevant, because that applies only to UK legislative procedure. If the Scottish MPs were to withdraw and declare independence following a democratic vote of the Scottish people and London’s refusal to negotiate, that step would involve no UK legislative procedure and would require permission from no one. What law do you envisage would have to be passed by Westminster? If I’m missing something, please say what it is. It’s you who is making the positive claim, that an impediment exists. If so, what is that impediment?

    7. This is getting deeper and deeper into Alice Through The Looking Glass territory, and if I didn't recognise your name I would assume this was an exercise in trolling. I actually don't have a clue what you're getting at here, unless you're just trying to make a technical point about an ineffective declaration of UDI not being a criminal offence. Would MPs who declared UDI end up in prison? Probably not. Would the declaration of UDI have any legal effect whatsoever under UK domestic law? No, of course it wouldn't. Would it make Scotland an independent country? Nope.

      What's your point, Alan?

    8. James, you're falling in to the trap of believing that ending the Treaty of Union requires majority consent of Westminster. Now, clearly, Westminster would argue that it does, but Thatcher herself conceded that all that was required was a majority of Scottish (or for that matter English) MPs to be elected on a mandate for independence. That happens to be the position that I adhere to. One could argue that we have made things artificially harder for ourselves with the additional requirements of mandates, referenda, 50%+1 majorities and so on, however I do recognise the benefits and of course the moral imperative for having such requirements.

      Fundamentally, we, the people of Scotland are sovereign. we lend our sovereignty to our elected representatives in the House of Commons at Westminster and they make decisions for us, including our constitutional arrangements. Logically therefore, if a majority of them wish to end the Treaty of Union then it is within their power to do so.

      That's the reason why I think it is, despite the disadvantages; constitutionally, logically and legally correct to use a Westminster election as a de facto referendum. Whilst a Holyrood election has definite advantages, it is the case that any decision made there has to be ratified by our Westminster MPs, either in advance of or subsequent to a Holyrood referendum (de facto or otherwise). The issue is, Westminster as a whole, not just Scottish MPs claim sovereignty over Holyrood, rightly or wrongly.

      What it boils down to is this: Do you believe that:
      A) we have lent our sovereignty to just our Scottish MPS, or
      B) we have lent our sovereignty to Westminster as a whole.

      Thatcher thought A. You seem to be saying B.
      Of course an interesting side effect of holding stance B is that it shows a massive imbalance in the Union. You have a position where one party (Scotland) cannot end the Treaty unilaterally, whereas the other party (England et al) can.

    9. If accepting objective reality is "falling into a trap", then yes, I am falling into a trap, but I am still happier to be the one who accepts objective reality rather than the one who denies it. The fact that "ending the Treaty of Union" requires majority consent in the UK Parliament is absolutely the position under UK domestic law and nothing Mrs Thatcher said changes that. She was making a political point rather than a legal one, and she wasn't suggesting that any sort of legal automaticity would flow from Scotland electing a majority of pro-indy MPs. Any notion that she was suggesting that is, frankly, more than a little eccentric.

    10. Independence for ScotlandJanuary 6, 2023 at 7:50 PM

      James, that statement of the obvious is also a statement of a colonial status for Scotland. There is no democracy for Scotland as long as we remain part of the UK

    11. James, if that is your stance then logically there are only three options remaining:
      1) Somehow persuade Westminster to either vote for us to leave/be able to leave, i.e. grant us permission to hold some sort of referendum.
      2) Give up and go home.
      3) Pursue independence by non-political means.

      Which option is your preference? Which option(s) do you think would work?

    12. It's not my "stance", it's a statement of objective reality, which for some reason you are in flat denial of. Forgive me if I don't play along with your little three-option game, I've stated my position abundantly clearly, and it's a bit tedious for you to pretend not to have noticed or understood it. The objective for the independence movement must be to secure an outright mandate for independence, which is something that is wholly in our hands and that Westminster cannot prevent. It is also a prerequisite for negotiating an independence settlement with London - which, in the real world, is the only way Scotland will become an independent country.

  2. Gradualism has overstayed its purpose. Radicalism is now needed, and, if necessary a change in SNP leadership to bring it about. Westminster has never accepted gradualism - it continues to view devolution as power retained.

    1. Let's get along to the barricades, comrade !

  3. It's pretty unlikely that rUK would ever "agree" to independence under any circumstances. What we have to try to achieve is a situation in which they have no viable alternative remaining but to grudgingly 'accept' our decision.
    Of course we need a democratically expressed mandate as part of that. It seems that we are in that political territory now, thus the long and painful argument with our own troughers and careerists about how it should be expressed.
    What we haven't got yet is the means to force rUK to accept it.
    Only the struggle to reach that point would show us the exact shape of what is needed but reaching out to NHS, railway and other strikers plus radical environmentalists and convincing them that in an independent Scotland their reasonable and sensible aspirations would receive a qualitatively more sympathetic hearing would be a very good place to start. Encouraging others to similar direct action needs to run with this.
    I suppose what I'm suggesting is that, on top of our democratic mandate we have to be able to make our country ungovernable for the rUK parasites.

  4. Gradualism worked while more powers (or rather visible use of powers) were being accrued - that stopped, now gradualism is going in the other direction and over the next 5 years the Scottish parliament will become less of a center of government and more an annoying talking shop. Gradualism is finished in this hostile environment.

  5. It used to be thought that the SNP tried to convert people to the merits of Scottish independence. Now people have to try to convert the SNP to the merits of Scottish independence. Is this part of the conversion therapy the SNP now want to be made illegal. Nothing would surprise me in Sturgeon's Scotland.

  6. Am I right in believing there is no written constitutional documents to the UK, just the acts of Union?

    Imagine if London argued in a court of international law that they hold the final say on the Constitution and a judge asks for proof of that claim, and they say we don't have any proof we just always assumed that!... Also isn't the UK EXACTLY one half a Scottish entity and one half an English entity therefore both Scotland and England should have an equal say in matters ( there's no documentation that says otherwise?)

  7. Scotland can decide to be independent anytime it wants to with a majority voting for it , the Scottish parliament could even decide that English people and eu citizens will not get a vote but the big problem is that independence without Westminsters agreement will mean that there will be no sharing of belongings no sharing of what the U.K. owns and no sharing of terms of agreement with regarding border control trade etc etc.
    An amicable agreement is almost as important as independence itself not as important but almost as important we want independence but we do not want England to become enemies .
    A majority in a general election corners Westminster forcing it to play by its own rules , there is of course a chance that they will still refuse to agree to independence when faced with a majority in Scotland voting for it but that would make them look undemocratic and silly to the outside world which is important for any nation.
    Winning an general election with a majority after campaigning saying it’s to decide yes or no for independence leaves Westminster little wriggle room.

  8. Putting to one side, James, your charge of absurdist fantasy, the issue is substantial, indeed central to the independence cause.

    For years, the movement has been sidelined and distracted by lacklustre efforts to obtain consent for a referendum out of Westminster, and only recently has the leadership of my party, the SNP, reluctantly but explicitly re-adopted the long-standing policy of a plebiscite election, at the same time as actually taking the step of preparing a referendum bill and having it judicially quashed. Meantime the movement has been in deep-freeze. To a considerable extent the zombie mindset was brought about by the notion that only a referendum (with Westminster’s agreement) would do because there was no other way, and if Westminster was forbidding a referendum they would certainly treat a plebiscite election with complete contempt (as Ms Sturgeon herself indicated in a TV interview). The idea that an electoral plebiscite was useless was put about by the SNP, and not by London. So successful has the self-sabotage been that still, months after the First Minister’s very welcome public and official turn-about with her parliamentary announcement, large segments of the movement still think that Scotland cannot go independent without London’s agreement. As well as being strictly erroneous, that attitude is subservient and debilitating.

    If it is the case that there is no legal or constitutional impediment to Scottish secession following a democratic vote and a refusal by London to negotiate, then a very important fact holds. That is that any move by London to keep Scotland in the Union against the will of its people would not be based on law, constitution or democracy, but sheer power, authoritarian and oppressive. However weird the UK government, I believe (you may differ) that is not a position they would put themselves in. But before that repugnant scenario arises (and we agree that it probably will not), they will benefit from any suggestion in the movement that success requires their consent, by stringing it along and trying to subvert it.

    The movement should be clear that Scotland at its own hand may leave the Union following a legal and democratic vote of its people to that effect. In that regard we are, thankfully, in a different position from Catalonia with its apparent constitutional prohibition. Nor does reference to a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) have any bearing. (That term is notorious because it was the name given to Rhodesia’s proclamation of 1965 of independence from glorified colonial status in order to preserve white superiority.)

    So the absence of any legal or constitutional impediment is not just a dry fact. It might prove crucial in any (unlikely) post-Yes stalemate, and right now wider appreciation of it could spur the movement towards achieving the democratic majority which we all seek.

    This whole thing is about one sentence in your piece (with which I otherwise agree), that appeared to me to be an important mis-statement, but your blog is fine stuff and a great bonus to the movement.

    1. "If it is the case that there is no legal or constitutional impediment to Scottish secession following a democratic vote and a refusal by London to negotiate, then a very important fact holds."

      But, unfortunately, it is NOT the case that there is no legal or constitutional impediment, and I've already explained why extremely clearly. The impediment is that, under domestic UK law, the constitution is reserved to the UK Parliament in its entirety, and not to the Scottish component of it. As I've already pointed out, the non-Scottish component can effortlessly outvote the Scottish component by 591 votes to 59, and therefore Scottish MPs have no legal power to unilaterally make Scotland an independent state, irrespective of the strength of the electoral mandate they hold.

      The rest of your lengthy comment is thus based on a wholly false premise.