Nicola Biggerstaff – 2nd June 2022
Jubilee Fever: bringing a second independence vote into perspective
As I take a walk around my town this week, Jubilee Fever has truly taken over the high street: Union Jacks; red, white and blue bunting; even a recreation of the crown jewels in a shop window, complete with rich violet satin sheets; with more homemade displays, wreaths, and flags covering the surrounding houses and beyond. It all feels somewhat at odds with my role at Common Weal, as if my work interactions with colleagues, supporters and working group members, and my everyday interactions with shop owners, dog walkers and even family exist in different realities. But these bubbles do coexist in our country, and it is important that we acknowledge this. Perhaps we need to take pause and consider how realistic the Scottish Government’s goal of a second referendum by the end of next year actually is.
For starters, they seem wholly unprepared logistically to even campaign to put a referendum on the table. Soundbite statements from ministers appear to only whet the appetite of Indy supporters without providing any substance, and some are beginning to lose faith that they will deliver by this self-imposed deadline. Have a think about recent efforts, post-Covid, to put an independence vote back on the table. Can you remember anything of actual substance? Any attempts to legislate or negotiate? Or just SNP Ministers lauding the concept on the news and in parliamentary debate for the sake of generating controversial conversation? Perhaps they need our help in setting this in motion.
For a new referendum to become feasible, two components are necessary: an assessment of feeling and opinion on the ground, and the inter-state diplomacy to set out the legal framework and logistics. Firstly, there has been no official scoping of public opinion, no polling by the Scottish Government itself, who are simply relying on the independent polling of news sources with miniscule sample sizes, such as YouGov or biased media sources, who are more likely to produce a skewed result in an attempt to prove this is the mood of an entire nation. Laying the groundwork for a new referendum will not work without this basic analysis of what the public thinks of this. Even then, with all of this in place, who’s to say the public won’t turn round and outright reject the slightest hint of a second referendum? Many supported the first round on the ‘once in a generation’ basis, not realising that they too have taken the bait of the soundbite politics our government loves.
There needs to be a material shift in the democratic will of the people for the exact issue of voting on independence, and not proxy issues such as Brexit and EU regulations or the notion of independence itself, in which ulterior political motives can be inserted and debated along partisan lines, blurring the debate of said proxy issue while not actually solving the main issue at hand. The Scottish Government can posture to their heart’s content about their support for a more integrated Europe with an independent Scotland in it, but it will not stir up the sort of support for a referendum they think it will, only serving to embolden those who already support independence and do not need to be convinced any more that another vote is needed, while angering those whose minds need to be changed in order to even open the polling stations. Another referendum does not necessarily mean a change of heart among the Scottish people, and this is a core message that I personally believe is missing from the whole debate, perhaps out of fear from pro-independence supporters of all parties that it could be more years of optimism in exchange for another No.
Secondly, while the Edinburgh Agreement which legalised the holding of the first referendum was agreed and signed by October 2012, any sort of inter-state diplomacy to ensure the legality of any referendum by the end of 2023 has not even begun. It is simply not feasible to hold a legally binding referendum on the agreement of all affected parties in this timeframe, and we cannot afford the backlash in our international standing if we attempt to replicate the actions of the people of Catalonia, which our own First Minister has outwardly supported in the past, in order to do this. We will not be taken seriously on the diplomatic level without this legal framework, and it will only serve to lose the potential support for a Yes vote which could have been gathered otherwise from our regular, law-abiding citizens who make up the vast majority of the population. Yes! Despite appearances, and a certain bravado some may present on social media, we are in fact just ordinary folk, most of whom wouldn’t dare rebel much further out of our comfort zone than a slightly hot curry, never mind an illegal referendum. We want to participate in a democracy, not a rebellion, and it is frankly patronising of any government to think we the (ordinary) people would want anything else.
So how can we make a second, publicly popular and legally binding, referendum a more realistic goal than it is currently? Firstly, and perhaps most importantly if the issue is so time sensitive to them, the Scottish Government should enact Section 30 of the Scotland Act as soon as possible, allowing the government and MSPs to debate and legislate on previously non-devolved issues. While its previous uses include the lowering of the voting age in Scottish elections and, crucially, in the signing of the previously mentioned Edinburgh Agreement, this should, provided (optimistically) the cooperation of Westminster, get the UK to the negotiating table for at least preliminary talks on a framework for a vote. This level playing field would also bolster Scotland’s international image, preventing the potential diplomatic and PR disaster of a previously discussed illegal vote.
So we’ve covered the how, next is the when. It is clear now more than ever that the end of 2023 is simply not feasible to gather support for a vote without feeling pressured into it and turning off potential supporters. When is the next best opportunity? Perhaps we could co-ordinate with the independence movements of the other nation states and, much like the recent local authority elections, hold simultaneous votes on Welsh independence, or now potentially an Irish Border Poll? With the leading Sinn Féin now working towards a vote on Irish reunification within the next five years, co-ordination is not completely unattainable, but perhaps a little crude. It’s a nice enough notion for supporters of the respective movements – no one wants to be the ‘last out the door’ – but we also need to consider that this could further turn internal support away from the concept both here and in the other concerned nations.
Furthermore, it would take even longer to co-ordinate the respective votes to the same dates and, if one or more are successful, would create a diplomatic nightmare for England. Their disastrous handling of the mountain of bureaucracy stemming from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU should serve as a warning not to overwhelm a government which struggles to get the best deal for itself at the negotiating table, as it will ultimately lower the quality of negotiations for everyone involved. We all remember the mockery the UK was subject to during this time by our European counterparts, and we as a nation are surely above this? Perhaps instead of the end of next year, we should instead aim for an independence vote by the end of the decade. It may seem overly cautious, but if we want this to succeed, we need to dedicate more time and resources to it than the government is currently willing to in order to incentivise and build momentum.
The worst thing we can do at this moment is lose hope. If we lose hope, it’s because we’ve already lost everything else. It’s easy to be swept up by pessimism when it’s dressed up as realism, but here at Common Weal, we have the necessary resources to inform and build a roadmap for a new independent Scotland, all of which are publicly available now, more oven-ready than any Brexit deal. Our guide on How to Start a New Country sets out all the necessary practical steps to set up the political, social, economic (and more) infrastructure in a way that works for all of us. Our Common Home Plan sets out a Green New Deal for Scotland in which we can achieve beyond Net Zero. Resilience Economics Parts One and Two go into even greater detail on how we can finance all of this for decades into the future. Perhaps we need to take up reins and become part of the change, promoting our roadmap for a better society in which we can all benefit, one in which we can all feel as valued as royalty.