THERE IS A RUMBLING debate about the timing of a proposed Scottish independence referendum, highlighted by remarks from Labour’s Keir Starmer and the SNP’s John Swinney.
Polls show support for yes as high as 58 percent, and even Starmer, usually a model of prim constitutional complacency, admits the “status quo is not an option”, with the British state locked in perpetual crisis. However, there are doubts now even about an election in May, never mind a referendum later in the year. And the unionist vuvuzelas are blasting the usual din: “now is not the time”.
But when is the time? Previously, the SNP leadership has made commitments, with varying conviction, to an early referendum. Ian Blackford spoke definitively of organising one for 2021; Sturgeon used more ambivalent language, but nonetheless committed to the early phase of the next parliament.
However, we have been here before. “The non-appearance of the independence referendum has been the great shaggy dog story of the last five years, since Nicola Sturgeon first started promising it,” MacWhirter observes. Sturgeon told the 2016 SNP conference that she was “determined that Scotland will have the ability to reconsider the question of independence and do so before the UK leaves the EU.”
There were subsequent “reset timetables” for putative referendums in 2018 and 2019, but circumstances (or the disastrous People’s Vote alliance) always intruded. It has the feeling of Freudian dream logic, or Luis Bunuel’s surrealist classic the Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, where increasingly mad circumstances intrude to stop a dinner party going ahead.
The Scottish Left has to play a tricky game here. Most (I include myself) support independence at the earliest opportunity. We have criticised Sturgeon, rightly I believe, for putting it on the backburner. However, conversely, we also know that Sturgeon’s authority over the Left rests on her control of the constitutional timeline, and there are many crucial reforms that have been effectively postponed while that remains unresolved. The worst of all worlds is that this Groundhog Day persists for another five years or longer.
For this reason, Jim Sillars has said independence should come sixth on the SNP’s list of priorities, while they sort out the domestic agenda and all the problems of the pandemic. While I disagree with Jim – as will most readers, I expect – I also understand how exasperation led him to this point. The shaggy dog story has allowed not just the postponement of independence, but of crucial, searching reforms to address perhaps the biggest economic shock in capitalist history.
The alternative is to find a way of breaking the deadlock. There is talk of “Plan B” among SNP dissidents. I have yet to be convinced that this could command legitimacy, although I do understand their frustration that leaders refuse to even countenance debating the proposal. A consultative referendum is a more legitimate option, but runs the risk of an opposition boycott, as in Catalonia. There is also talk of challenges in the court if Westminster denies another official referendum request.
Between the two extremes, of the official route and the various alternative schemes, may lie a third approach. This would essentially involve a mass, open campaign to grow support across the UK, combined with demonstrations and civil disobedience, not just in Scotland but in London too, with the goal of forcing the glare of world attention on the already embattled Westminster government. That may seem obvious, but there has been radio silence on launching such a campaigning model.
If this approach were to happen, Labour’s behaviour becomes an important factor, for all that the party, in Scottish terms, is a rump. Sadly, Labour has regressed under Starmer, both in its constitutional approach and in its status as an activist party. However, the above strategy would depend on winning soft support from voters, campaigners and trade unionists in England, Wales, Ireland and beyond. That support has to be found from somewhere.
Either way, we have to demand greater transparency from our own leaders. Being held perpetually on tenterhooks is a recipe for both domestic and constitutional regression. Will a referendum happen in 2021? I have my doubts, and at some stage we have to be honest with ourselves too.