The next Scottish elections on May 6 2021 will be unique in Scottish electoral history. An SNP majority would replicate the mandate that led to the 2014 referendum. Whereas the 2011 SNP majority was a surprise, recent polling has created an expectation of an SNP majority with the Greens possibly adding another 10 or so pro-independence MSPs.
Let’s skip over the “Oh but Gordon, Westminster will keep saying no to a referendum” objections; I hope Westminster is that stupid but I’ve covered that in two other articles; Plan A or plan B / Boris and English independence
So why a power-grab referendum and not an independence referendum on the same day as the Scottish elections? The problem is that an independence referendum would link the Scottish election and the referendum back into historic party loyalties and possibly push supporters of independence from other parties back into their default Labour, Lib Dem and even Conservative tribes as well as lose the SNP voters who don’t support independence. It would also create the only possible conditions for anti-SNP tactical voting and possibly even threaten an SNP majority. Additionally, it would open up two spoiler tactics for Westminster to undermine Scottish independence.
- Westminster retains power over the constitution and could pass a law that a Yes result required 50% of the voting age population to be binding. 20% don’t bother to vote so 50%, under those circumstances, is impossible. Then unionist parties would tell their voters to vote tactically in the Holyrood poll but to boycott the referendum ballot. The Scottish government would have to go to court to oppose such legislation but it’s not clear they would win and it would be a confusing mess for voters. This would create a Catalonia style situation where any declaration of independence would be largely ignored by the international community.
- Indyref2 on May 6 would also trigger legal changes from the Westminster government (ending up in the Supreme Court) who would state that even if the Scottish government was legally allowed to hold such a referendum, they couldn’t bind the UK government to respect the result and the proceeding could take so long as to block the referendum taking place.
Independence after such a poll would not generate the swift and vital international recognition for independence to facilitate trade and diplomatic relations. Committed independence supporters might be thinking “bring it on”, but the 7% undecided and many of the recent No to Yes converts are thinking that looks like a constitutional shit-show and they would be right.
Fortunately, there is a referendum option that would unite the nation – a referendum on protecting Scotland’s parliament, its powers and the future of devolution.
The only Brexit options left for the UK are No Deal or a really bad deal. Sure, the new American President wants to protect the Good Friday Agreement due to his Irish roots and because the USA facilitated that agreement. However, that doesn’t mean his future trade negotiation team won’t demand access to NHS contracts for American healthcare companies. One way or another devolution is under threat and there will be a power grab, there will be an assault on Scotland’s democratic will to protect our parliament and its powers.
This issue, if managed properly can unite Scotland and holds the key to increasing independence support even into the 60s and its also the key to forcing a pre-negotiated referendum. The Internal Market Bill allows the UK government to override laws passed at Holyrood. It would also remove powers from Holyrood whilst ending devolution as we know it and the people of Scotland won’t allow that.
The result of Business for Scotland’s private polling (not previously released) may surprise you. Our August poll by Panelbase of 1,011 registered voters asked if respondents thought the Vow had been delivered – the answer was 55% Yes and 45% No. This week a Panelbase poll published by ScotGoesPop found that 66% of Scottish voters think that Westminster should only be able to take the powers from the Scottish government after a referendum on those powers. The same poll found that 63% would believe that the Vow would be broken by the Internal Market Bill power grab.
The Internal Market Bill now means that the Vow is backfiring on the Unionist parties big time – if Westminster takes powers back from the Scottish Parliament whilst forcing Brexit on Scotland, it undermines the very promise of more powers that held the Union together.
A referendum asking the Scottish people to allow or reject Westminster’s power grab would have five key benefits. It would:
- Unite 70% + of the Scottish people in a rejection of Westminster (many for the first time).
- Demonstrate the Scottish government’s legal right under The Referendums (Scotland) Bill to legally hold referendums on the governance of Scotland. Note that there can be no legal challenge as it is a referendum on devolved constitutional powers, not reserved ones.
- Stop the unlikely event of Westminster trying to hold an independence referendum with the wording of its choosing on the same day (they are considering that).
- Force plan B on Scotland if Scotland votes to protect the powers of the Parliament and Westminster removes those powers anyway, whilst also rejecting the renewed mandate for a referendum. Forced into plan B, then international recognition isn’t a problem.
- Destroy any Unionist Holyrood party tactical voting ability and isolate the Conservatives on the wrong side of the argument, as siding with the UK government’s power grab would be political suicide and drive as much as 50% of the Labour vote and 33% of the Lib Dem vote plus a few Conservatives to the SNP and Greens.
The wording of the question should also get people voting Yes. Do you agree that the Scottish Parliament’s powers, granted under the various Scotland Acts, are permanent and cannot be altered or removed by any UK government without the Scottish Parliament’s majority agreement? Yes/No.
Why wait till May? Covid is not going any time soon and a referendum on any issue in the middle of a huge second wave would be a bad idea. We have to hope things will be better in spring! As soon as we are past the Brexit transition period we will also know what damage Brexit is doing to Scotland’s exports, to business, jobs, to our communities and only then can we be sure that independence will prevail. A referendum on the power grab would also go hand in hand with a demand from the Scottish government that the Brexit power grab is halted till Scotland votes on it. Again, I hope Westminster is stupid enough to try to strip powers under those conditions.
We will also be heavily into the Holyrood campaign in the new year and so making protecting devolution the narrative of that election guarantees a big Yes majority and that is the only scenario that makes an independence referendum in Autumn 2021 highly likely. Why would Westminster suddenly agree to negotiate a Section 30? Because they will only come to the negotiating table when they know they have already lost and Holyrood 2021 is the way to force the issue whilst simultaneously stopping the Brexit power grab.
To hold a referendum on protecting devolution at the same time as the 2021 Holyrood elections would make those elections about protecting the powers of the Scottish Parliament and thus maintain the momentum to Yes within the undecided and soft No groups of voters.
It would establish the right of the Scottish parliament to authorise a referendum through The Referendums (Scotland) Bill. Additionally, it would bring the deficiencies of the Union into sharp focus without the downside of triggering some voters’ fading British identity which it would also simultaneously undermine.
The SNP and Greens would still have manifesto pledges on an independence referendum but the all important narrative of the elections would be protecting the parliament and a future independence referendum positioned as a consequence of Westminster’s actions, and not framed as an SNP obsession.
There are several routes to independence that involve a Section 30 agreement and a smooth transition to independence involving rapid international recognition of Scotland as an independent nation. This is just one of them and it is worthy of consideration.