David Jamieson

David Jamieson

The Referendum that isn’t Coming

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It’s time to get real. There’s no plan for an independence referendum in 2023, writes David Jamieson. It’s another march up the hill, and the most implausible yet.

Nicola Sturgeon has begun to slide on her promise to hold an independence referendum in 2023. Can anyone be surprised?

Here’s Pete Wishart, the SNP’s longest standing MP, on 30 December 2021: “I don’t know what’s so difficult to understand. There will be a referendum in the first half of this Parliament. We were elected with the biggest vote ever in a Scottish Parliament election with that commitment and that is exactly what we are going to do.”

This was very much the tone of leading SNP figures, following the SNP’s Scottish Election victory in 2021.

Now here’s Sturgeon just eleven days later, on 10 January: “I intend to do everything that’s within my power to enable that referendum to happen before the end of 2023.”

I think we all caught the slight of hand; the introduction of subclauses and get-outs, now so familiar to anyone who has followed Scottish politics since 2014. “Everything that’s within my power” won’t be enough, because Sturgeon has ruled out any approach to a referendum that doesn’t resemble the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement – and that means assent from the UK Government, already twice denied in 2016 and 2020. But for any who refuse to accept Sturgeon at her tell-tale words, let’s compare 2022 to 2013, the year before the 2014 referendum.

By this time in 2013, Yes Scotland (founded 25 May 2012) had existed for six and a half months. The organisation had Glasgow city centre headquarters and full time staff, with office bearers and a leadership. Yes Scotland groups had already sprung up around the country. Several other significant campaigning initiatives had also been established, including at large rallies. The Edinburgh Agreement was finally signed, after months of negotiations, in October 2012.

Today, none of these developments are even visible on the horizon. Even if ‘before the end of 2023’ is one minute to midnight on 31 December, these milestones have been missed.

There is no agreement, there are no official negotiations (and if there is a backchannel, its communications are secret from independence supporters for a reason). There is no campaigning organisation. We can’t even know what it would be called since we’ve no idea what the question (or, indeed, questions) would be.

There’s no policy on currency and trade. Unless the policy really is to join the EU single market and customs union whilst continuing to use the currency of a country not in these organisations – which is worse than no policy at all.

So if there’s no intention of a referendum in 2023, how can the SNP leadership dodge the recriminations when it doesn’t materialise (again)? They have their pick of get-outs.

Sturgeon has already stated that if the pandemic doesn’t abate sufficiently, the referendum may be postponed for an indeterminate period. All over the world, states are abandoning the concept of eliminating the virus. Covid19 will be with us, in some form or other, for years to come. Even should it abate very substantially in the next year, ripple effects like economic, social and health disruption can always be cited.

With Boris Johnson increasingly resented and mistrusted in both the country and his own party, and with an apparent drive by factional enemies to replace him, an early election remains a real possibility. General Elections don’t fill SNP leaders with the same apprehensions as an independence referendum – they are very good at winning them, and each fresh victory creates a new independence ‘mandate’ that can be bounced around for another few years.

Perhaps the most dependable excuse for a referendum not taking place is the one indicated in Sturgeon’s statement – the intransigence of the UK Government at Westminster. This phrase “everything that’s within my power” strongly implies Sturgeon foresees either a Westminster rebuff, or lengthy and open-ended negotiations, either of which would allow SNP leaders to play the issue into a forthcoming General and/or Scottish election.

It’s hard not to be amused by the bottomless cynicism of the SNP leadership. But it must also be said that this is all deeply disrespectful.

Remember that the current government, an SNP-Green coalition, only exists because of its supposed unity over the question of independence – the headline policy in the coalition agreement. The SNP owes its political legitimacy and popularity to this one policy, without which it could never have achieved lasting hegemony. This is, therefore, an arch democratic issue. And the glaring falsehood at the heart of our politics pollutes everything around it.

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