Remember Theresa May’s “Now is not the time” response to the request from the Scottish Government for the legal power to hold a second independence referendum?
Just five words was all it took for the Westminster Government to confirm its contempt for Scotland’s democracy.
The SNP had won the Scottish election in 2016. Nicola Sturgeon’s party won more Holyrood seats than the three Unionist parties combined. The party manifesto reserved the right to call a second independence referendum in the event Scotland was taken out of the EU against the will of her people.
The democratic mandate counted for nothing in the eyes of the London based government. The SNP won the snap General Election again with more MPs than the combined efforts of its Unionist rivals. That win was presented by the pro-Union media as a loss. Despite a carefully worded speech by Nicola Sturgeon in which the First Minister re-affirmed her right to call Indyref2, the constitutional issue has ebbed … replaced by the mess that is the Brexit negotiations.
The Scottish Government hasn’t sought to make much capital out of Theresa May’s refusal. The snap general election halted momentum. The strategy now seems to be to let the enemy dig its own Brexit grave unhindered. Recent polls regarding electoral support for the SNP and backing for independence suggest the strategy may be working. Both have enjoyed a post snap election bounce.
But what of Indyref2? May’s refusal to recognise the mandate, all but forgotten, still lurks in the background. It’s going to resurface at some point.
A similar situation was facing the pro-independence Catalan government. It too won a democratic mandate to hold an independence referendum. It too was denied permission to hold one. However it adopted a rather different approach to that favoured by the SNP administration.
A vote on Catalan independence will be held in October 1st. Spain has reacted by trying to prevent the ballot taking place using increasingly aggressive measures. The Catalans have held fast and are insistant their referendum will be held.
So what’s going to happen? If, as seems likely, the Catalans vote Yes then the Catalan Government will declare independence. Spain will of course refuse to recognise its legitimacy. Madrid is unlikely to send troops onto the Catalan streets, a move that would certainly isolate the Spanish government and bring with it international condemnation. It’s likely that Rajoy will seize control of the levers of power and a stalemate will ensue.
The EU would then have to become involved and a process of negotiation and conciliation would begin. Where it would end is anyone’s guess, although the longer the ‘remote occupation’ went on, the more hardened the desire for independence would become amongst Catalans.
It’s difficult to see how the Spanish government could re-assimilate Catalonia into Spain without the holding of another ‘ratification’ referendum. That would certainly allow Madrid to mount a Westminster style ‘charm and scare’ offensive. Catalans would of course need to reverse their October 21st vote. However that seems unlikely given the Catalans have a fully autonomous broadcast media that serves the Catalan people first. Promises and threats would be treated with disdain by serious Catalan journalists.
As things stand, it looks as though Catalonia is firmly on the road to independence as a result of having ignored Madrid’s self-made rule that they cannot hold a referendum. Catalonia will have achieved its independence because it chose to defy Madrid.
But could Scotland do the same?
What if, come June next year, the Scottish Government announces its intention to honour the SNP manifesto commitment to hold a ‘material change’ independence referendum? In Nicola Sturgeon’s favour is the 2016 Holyrood win where her party gained more seats than the Unionists combined. Bolstering that win was the Holyrood vote in March this year where the Scottish Parliament mandated the SNP administration to seek a Section 30 order, giving it the legal power to hold a referendum.
The snap Westminster election saw the SNP vote fall, but crucially the party still emerged with more MPs than the three Unionist parties combined. In short, Nicola Sturgeon’s mandate is rock solid.
But Scotland is not Catalonia. Where the Catalans have their own devolved broadcast media answering to their own parliament, Scotland has the BBC.
Unlike Catalonia, where the views of Madrid do not dominate the airwaves and news is not shaped by pro-Madrid narratives, Scotland’s broadcast media is essentially a London controlled import. Scares are headlined, not ridiculed. Pledges are presented as though written in parchment … remember The Vow?
It wouldn’t be long before British Nationalists began setting the news narrative. The BBC would trumpet each and every claim from the Davidsons, the Mundells, the Swinsons and the Sarwars.
Nicola Sturgeon would be portrayed as a demagogue riding roughshod over the wishes of the Scottish electorate – remember, according to the BBC it was Ruth Davidson who ‘won’ the 2017 snap election.
Experts mothballed from the first indyref would re-emerge to warn of the dangers of independence. Scares circulated during indyref1, regarding the credit rating of an indy Scotland, would be dusted down and headlined. The Scottish Government would be portrayed, not as a democratic administration nobly defending its legitimate democratic mandate, but a maverick ‘nationalist’ group intent on sowing turmoil and chaos by recklessly pursuing an obsession.
Newspapers like The Herald, Scotsman, Record, Mail, Telegraph and others would run headline after headline, story after story, with the intention of demonising the First Minister. The mandate would be questioned. The referendum itself would become the issue.
Instead of fighting a campaign, the SNP would forever be defending the actual ballot. Its legitimacy would be questioned. Unionists and their media mouthpieces would rerun ‘day job’ jibes. Brexit catastrophes would be blamed on the proposed Indyref. The Scottish public would be subjected to a crescendo of misinformation to the extent some would actually begin to deny their own democratic right.
Thus, the Scottish Government cannot replicate the Catalan strategy. It cannot hold a referendum on independence in defiance of Westminster … yet. What it can do though is try to emulate elements of the Catalan strategy.
In 2018 the Scottish Government could revisit the issue of the Section 30 order and re-affirm its request for legal approval to hold a second referendum. There need be no referendum date stipulated. Nicola Sturgeon has already made clear the date of the next Indyref is fluid and reliant on the Brexit talks. Below is a clip of the First Minister during the general election campaign this year.
All that is required is for the UK Government to be reminded of the request made back in March 2017.
A Tory Government currently embroiled in disastrous Bexit talks will be in no hurry to grant such a request. The Scottish Government need only highlight the refusal and marry it to the chaos of Brexit. At each chaotic turn, as we near the Brexit cliff-edge, the request for the Section 30 is re-iterated. The public will begin to view the Section 30 as insurance against the calamitous Brexit being pursued by Westminster.
The pro-Union media will try desperately to derail this strategy. It will try to portray the request for a section 30 as an announcement of a second referendum itself. The message from the Scottish government should be clear and unambiguous. No referendum will be called until the Brexit process has concluded and the ‘deal’ is clear. This is precisely what Nicola Sturgeon said in a statement to Holyrood on June 27th after the snap general election.
Use the section 30 request as a proxy for holding a second independence referendum. At some point the defiant refusal by a Tory led government to respect our parliament, coupled with Brexit, will cause undecided voters and soft No voters to move to Yes. Continued refusal will harden views. Independence becomes inevitable, as does a second referendum.
As I finish writing this article, news is coming on of an overwhelming Yes to independence by the citizens of Kurdistan. Over ninety per cent in favour. The Kurds held their ballot in the face of hostility from Westminster and Washington. On Sunday we may see Catalonia voting the same way, albeit by a much reduced majority.
Two small nations who forged ahead with their referendums despite being told it was against the rules and against their interests. There’s a lesson there for the Scottish Government.
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