Examining the prospects for indyref2 in 2023
9 minute read.
This is the first newsletter from Independence captured. You are welcome to read the introduction and overview to the project here, which you may find provides useful context.
This edition takes a detailed look at the prospects for an independence referendum in 2023. Please forgive the length of this instalment. Future newsletters will be shorter, but this topic requires a fair bit of examination, so settle in for a longer read.
We need to assess some of the wider dynamics at play beyond the kind of headlines we are now used to seeing around referendum pledges, promises and proclamations.
This analysis concludes that for the SNP leadership the on-going prospect of a referendum is primarily an electoral tool. The following is an attempt to break down the key elements which lead towards this position. In doing so we expose the lack of planning, the missed opportunities and, indeed, the sometimes cynical manner with which the SNP leadership have approached the national question since 2014.
Barriers made in Scotland
Often when the question of a new independence referendum arises, the focus is placed on the attitude of the UK government. The SNP is clear that a “gold standard” referendum, agreed and with the consent of Westminster, is the only route to independence. Thus, the common question is: will Boris Johnson (or whoever happens to be Prime Minister) “allow” a referendum to take place.
This is very fertile terrain for the SNP leadership - and well within their comfort zone. An intransigent Tory government denying the right to Scottish self-determination does two things.
First, it means that actuality of a referendum and independence in general is avoided, and therefore retained as a device to marshal electoral support even when domestic policy is failing. Second, it provides the ideal space for arguments about the national question to be conducted. Rather than having to tackle the more difficult challenges such as currency, borders, pensions, EU ascension and so on, the overriding issue becomes one of democracy.
Such issues will be the subject of future newsletters, but the point is a general one: the SNP leadership don’t want their lack of planning and the contradictions in their prospectus to be put to the test. That would open a very difficult political space, which they prefer to avoid. Instead, independence is deployed, and retracted, tactically. This doesn’t mean they don’t believe in independence in principle. But it is an ideal, more than a short-term practical objective.
With that in mind we also have to be clear about some of the barriers and obstacles that have been already lodged without the intervention of the UK government. These are almost entirely ignored - but I think they merit proper discussion.
On the question of thresholds
In 2015, the SNP leadership generally played down the prospect of a future independence referendum. That is understandable, given the proximity to the 2014 vote. But they did stipulate a variety of circumstances which could add urgency and legitimacy to a new mandate. One of these, which would come to pass, was if Scotland was removed from the EU against its will. But the other test, revealed by senior SNP sources, was based on the idea of consistent polling of 60 percent or over in favour of independence.
Indeed, at the 2015 winter SNP conference, Nicola Sturgeon said:
“To propose another referendum in the next parliament without strong evidence that a significant number of those who voted No have changed their minds would be wrong and we won't do it.”
The 60 percent figure is interesting. The Scottish Secretary, Alistair Jack, has previously conceded that regular polling of 60 percent in favour of a referendum would have to be acknowledged. Also note that the UK Referendums Bill, if passed, would require a vote of 60 percent to enact a change of conditions. This Bill is at the second reading in the House of Lords, and would be inclusive of all devolved nations.
Indeed, recent polling shows the pandemic may have had a chilling effect on demands for a referendum too. A Savanta poll revealed just 14 percent of respondents were favourable to a referendum in 2023. This is partly because the case for independence allied to a programme of real social and economic renewal has not been made consistently or powerfully enough on its own merits.
In my estimation, the SNP leadership wants to avoid even winning a referendum by 2 or 3 percent. That kind of outcome tends towards extremely volatile political conditions, open to all kinds of problems, divisions and pushbacks, which the SNP leadership (who are famously cautious) would rather avoid.
Brexit and the confirmatory vote
Brexit, a recent example of a very tight referendum margin precipitating major constitutional change, has embedded nervousness about close run referendums. During the period dominated by the Brexit crisis, I wrote about the absence of the case for independence, beyond the usual soundbites. Instead the SNP behaved simply as a pro-Remain party, and a Westminster one at that.
However, this was useful for the party electorally. By opting to prioritise the “stop Brexit” message, they broadened their appeal to include temporarily estranged No voters and many others. Consider opposing Brexit as the “happy place” for the SNP leadership at that time. Here lay a chance to ingratiate themselves with the liberal establishment and transitional institutions, and importantly, to subordinate the structural challenges posed by setting up an independent state.
But the SNP (and the Scottish Greens) went much further by actively backing a so-called “People’s Vote.” Indeed, not only did the SNP leadership support this in statements, they campaigned for it. When the First Minister spoke at the major demonstration for a People’s Vote in London, her words made the position clear:
“The House of Commons must now take back control from Theresa May and secure a longer extension to the process, to allow time for a new referendum to be held.”
The point here should be obvious. If a confirmatory vote can be supported on the question of Brexit, why not independence? Are we to be so naive as to imagine that - especially in a close run vote - those opposed to independence would fail to mount a similar campaign? And wouldn’t the institutions of the British state seek to generate the circumstances for such a movement to arise? The response to these concerns from Nicola Sturgeon is deeply unconvincing:
“The problem with Brexit is that nobody was straight in advance of the referendum about what it meant. There was no detail. It wasn’t the kind of informed decision that the 2014 independence referendum was.”
This assumes that the SNP have a detailed plan, which we know they don’t even as we are supposedly “ramping up” towards a referendum. And even if such a plan is produced, the idea that it cannot be contested or undermined through long and difficult negotiations just doesn’t stand up to even basic scrutiny.
The lack of preparation
As of now there exists no coherent plan for independence - and certainly not a detailed one. Of course, if a party was serious about winning independence, such a prospectus would already have been developed and indeed popularised in the years following Brexit.
This means that the independence movement - such as it is - campaigns with a rod up its back. Key opportunities over recent years may have been seized to promote a serious and popular vision for independence. But those have been passed up.
As we often hear, Boris Johnson is a recruiting sergeant for independence. But perhaps more accurately, he is a boon for the SNP electorally. Because simply opposing the latest Tory Prime Minister, while not enough to win independence, is a motivating factor in voting for the SNP.
What we do have is the Growth Commission which has been thoroughly repudiated. The document is contradictory on its own terms. Tests that can’t be met when it comes to an independent currency, and how, without a national bank, could Scotland enter the EU? The list goes on.
As do the number of reports and initiatives around the Scottish economy. First we had the Economic Recovery Group, headed by the Chair of Buccleuch Estates. Then we got the National Strategy for Economic Transformation - a ten year programme. It is not clear if this includes plans for independence in that time frame (presumably not?), though from what we hear it has been a messy process as we await its publication.
As the worst of the pandemic passes, and we “shift gears” towards independence, this year has so far been dogged by botched answers on pensions, forcing the SNP Policy Convenor to ask for “reassurances” on the issue. We also learn that a joint SNP-Green prospectus may be in the offing. The progress report? According to Scottish Greens Co-convenor, Lorna Slater, it is not far advanced:
“So over the course of the next year, before we start the campaign in earnest, we have time to have those conversations and start to flesh out those details. So at the moment, we are just at the beginning of that process, pulling out our paper work from 2014 and having a look at it and seeing what's changed, where has the conversation moved on. We are at the start of that process just now.”
It is true the pandemic “paused” all work on independence, though it is not clear what work took place before then. Though if the pandemic has done anything, it has only made the Growth Commission - the incoherent work that has been done - redundant.
There are rumours of an updated White Paper. But much time has already been lost. Without a plan, key openings to build support for independence have been squandered.
The art of the caveat
The SNP leadership have, some would say rather skilfully, mastered the art of caveats. But not just any old caveat, these are get out clauses that have potentially years in them.
So, as the First Minster said in 2018, “a better future is within our grasp, and together we are going to make it happen,” - but only once the “fog of Brexit” clears. The fog of Brexit could last for a very long time indeed. In fact, there is a sense in which it is almost indefinite.
Then we are told that an independence referendum will be held “covid permitting.” That is, of course, understandable. But elections have been held during the pandemic, and there is a high degree of elasticity in the statement. We might also speculate, given that it has been incorporated into an SNP conference motion, that “covid permitting” is not limited to health issues, but also to economic ones.
Lastly, we get lots of obscure “strategies” and announcements which never seem to add up to much, such as Mike Russells “11 point plan.” This was released - as if by happenstance - on the run up to an election and designed to spike internal discussions on independence strategy. Note that when the SNP leadership talk about independence in these terms, it is usually in response to an imminent election or to cohere the party membership. Rarely does it actually set the agenda.
Of course, it is possible to dispense with the caveats as elections approach. In March 2021, Ian Blackford claimed that Scots could face a referendum later on that year. A statement so lacking in credibility that it was widely ridiculed even by ardent independence supporters. He did do us a favour, though, by laying bare the cynicism that lies behind the present approach to a referendum and independence.
It raises the question: given this track record, why should anyone believe anything the SNP leadership say about a referendum and independence planning?
Why we can be confident the Tories will say “No”
Let’s look briefly at some of the technicalities. The SNP, in my view, does indeed have a mandate for a referendum. The Scotland Act 1998 sets out the powers of the Scottish Parliament. It also states that the parliament cannot pass legislation on reserved matters including “the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England.”
For the 2014 vote, the power to hold a referendum was transferred - temporarily. Now that power has expired the chosen route towards independence from an SNP perspective lies in seeking agreement with the UK government, and a Section 30 Order. This means that the Tories (or whoever is in power) have an immediate advantage. They have the ability to say the most powerful word in politics: “No.”
The following strategy is proposed:
The 2021 SNP manifesto said that the Scottish government would “discuss with the UK government the necessary transfer of power to put a referendum beyond legal challenge.” The implication is that the Scottish government will formally request that Westminster passes a section 30 order – or other legislation – that would empower Holyrood to hold a referendum.
If that request were refused the SNP have previously stated the following: “if there is a parliamentary majority so to do, we will introduce and pass a bill so that the necessary arrangements for the referendum can be made and implemented.”
The SNP recognises that the UK government might refer the bill to the Supreme Court, and has underlined that “such a legal challenge would be vigorously opposed by an SNP Scottish Government.”
The Tories, then, have options. They could block a referendum outright or they could take it to the Supreme Court. Some argue that the democratic argument outweighs the institutional power of the British state. That, I think, is a naive assessment of the character of those in power at the present moment.
The Tories have no incentive to grant one. Their vote in Scotland is crystallised around support for the Union. Perhaps it would damage the longer-term prospects for the Union. But at the same time, it also creates divisions over strategy in the SNP, or better still from their perspective, makes them appear impotent. In politics buying time is an important tactic, because over the course of time other events may change the situation in your favour.
Nicola Sturgeon has said that “time is on her side” when it comes to independence. Maybe an argument can be made on this basis. But that goes for the UK government too. Events like pandemics, or wars, or economic crises do not necessarily militate against the UK institutions and towards independence.
In the end this is a question of power. Despite the mandate, the existing strategy for independence means that power resides with the Tory government. The really important thing to consider is that this suits the SNP, by situating the issue on democratic grounds, rather than on the more challenging structural questions around setting up a new state.
No re-run of 2014
Even if the UK Prime Minister says, “yes, we will provide a Section 30 for a legally binding referendum to be held” that would only the beginning of a process:
The timescales could be dictated by the UK government
The question could change
A quorum could be applied (that 60 percent figure perhaps)
A confirmatory vote could be included in any agreement
These issues, and more, could amount to a protracted period of negotiation. It is unlikely, in the extreme, that the UK government would simply agree to a repeat of 2014.
The idea that the same question, with the same conditions, without court cases or any resistance whatsoever should all pass through the Electoral Commission with the technical requirements in place to run a referendum in time for the end of 2023 borders on the fantastical.
So, overall, it is mainly theatre. But it is useful theatre for the SNP leadership - as long as their approach avoids a few pitfalls.
Around a month ago, Nicola Sturgeon stated that she intended to set out her legislative timetable for a second independence referendum in “the coming weeks”.
This is standard operating procedure - and has been for some years now. Don’t underestimate the extent to which this government works on a day to day basis, without a long-term strategy.
We might expect the referendum legislation to be introduced to the Scottish Parliament sometime in March. This may even include things like a “date” for a referendum. But the target of this manoeuvre will not be the British state. It will be the Scottish electorate.
It will be to energise the SNP base. On the run up to the council elections in May, ratcheting up the independence front a few notches mobilises core support, demarcates the party from the Westminster circus, and crucially, subordinates poor domestic policy.
When you add everything together, the inescapable conclusion is this: that the SNP leadership have kept independence on the boil, but have made sure it doesn’t overflow. Why? To raise funds, to mobilise support and to defer criticism of domestic policy making. Also bear in mind the very cautious approach to governance taken taken by the SNP, and the positives gained in side-stepping the difficult issues involved in leaving the UK.
On independence there has been no over-arching strategy, no serious planning, plenty of own goals and at this time the UK government holds most of the cards.
Of course, these are difficult questions, and I am not arguing there are easy answers. But having a clear picture of the situation can only aid the discussion. The alternative is to hang on to every new headline without context - and there is only so long a movement can be marched up and down the hill.
Meanwhile, the show goes on. The corporate lobby has unmitigated influence and the status quo is assuaged. Scottish politics is paralysed. Referendum in 2023? I wouldn't bet on it.