The saga of the Brexit crisis has altered the picture when it comes to the battle-lines of a second independence referendum. CommonSpace journalist David Jamieson spoke to a range of thinkers on how the changed terrain of constitutional politics should be navigated in Scotland.
IN his new memoir, former PM David Cameron has spoken of his fears at the height of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.
On the night of the vote, he barely slept, and only allowed himself to retire once he’d seen the Clackmannanshire vote returned, which confirmed polls that put No with a significant lead.
Thereafter, he regarded the 55 per cent vote to maintain the union as one of his proudest achievements, and he declares in his much publicised account that he spent some of the happiest ours in his life with the victory under his belt.
Two years later, he would re-deploy the ‘Project Fear’ model of campaign again over Britain’s membership of the EU to disastrous effect.
Now, Cameron’s restless night has become the long night of the British establishment. State managers in the civil service, MPs in the House of Commons and the captains of industry from the Confederation of British Industry to the pages of the Financial Times – all have been consumed in the last three and a half years with shoring-up the social order and trying to stem the chaos of Brexit.
The morning of 23 June 2016 was one of the blackest they can remember. And they are in no hurry to experience it afresh.
In that context, the days when independence activists could assume that a Yes vote meant independence may be lost to the last three and a half years of constitutional chaos.
Referenda in general are out of favour among politicians, commentators and constitutional experts for being unwanted intrusions of direct-democracy into representative systems. Voters themselves are viewed as suspect. Majority votes are viewed by some among the powerful as mutable.
Labour MP for Glasgow North East Paul Sweeney contends that Brexit has shifted the goal posts for constitutional change.
“When the questions are binary ones like Yes or No or Remain or Leave we find ourselves in a difficult situation, particularly when the proposition is successful, because it’s quite a simplistic answer to what is a complex question,” he tells CommonSpace.
For Sweeney it is always the “proposition”, Leave or Yes, that must face extra hurdles.
“If you have another binary, simplistic answer it will be very difficult to reconcile. What form of separation should it take?
“You cannot negotiate it in advance as we saw with Brexit. So it would only be democratic in that situation if the proposition did win, and the side that was proposing the massive shift from the status quo did win, then once the negotiations had concluded then it should be subject to ratification before it is finally followed through with.
“That is only a fair situation. I think that needs to be codified actually, if we are looking at constitutional reform across the UK. Any major constitutional upheaval should be codified with a double lock because its the one proposing the big change and the big risk.”
There is now a nakedly conservative form of constitutional politics among parts of the centre and centre-left. Challenges to the status quo must be put through ringers that acceptance of the status quo need not.
Another idea floated by unionist campaigners is a demand that independence receive a two thirds majority. Once again, the onus is on the ‘proposition’; Remain needs no ‘People’s Vote’, No requires no two thirds majority.
Common Weal director Robin McAlpine urges independence supporters to see this situation from the point of view of unionist campaigners in a post Yes (or equivalent) environment.
“Whenever you think political strategy one of the first things you should do is role play being your opponent,” McAlpine says.
“If I was playing the part of a committed unionist, what would I do?
“I would frustrate that process for three years, easily. I’d throw around allegations of electoral fraud. I would open up an inquiry into the funding of the independence campaign. I would try to make sure negotiations collapse – and bear in mind I’d have the whole media with me.
“I would make it look like everything was always collapsing, a farce. I would get my economists to produce a ‘Yellowhammer’.”
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McAlpine, who has developed a plan for the establishment of an independent Scottish state through Common Weal’s White Paper Project, says though that he thinks these attempts would lose “to a competent opponent” – a coherent independence movement, with a determined strategy which was pre-prepared for achieving its end.
“The process of disentangling yourself from the British state remains as it was. What has changed is the public perception of the scale of the task.”
Unfortunately, McAlpine says, the ground has been “littered” by statements from independence supporters mirroring anti-Brexit rhetoric with a conservative bent.
These are the new challenges facing independence after a vote. A more immediate problem faces the movement in securing a vote in the first place. After the horrors of the Brexit crisis, extracting a section 30 order from a battered Conservative party is unlikely to be easy – especially if denying one buys votes for the party both in Scotland and England.
McAlpine says that a campaign of non-co-operation and civil disobedience may be necessary, including, for example, refusal to allow the state to service the Faslane naval base by use of Scottish roads.
He stresses that this would have to be an incremental process where the independence movement “has bought the public legitimacy for each escalation”.
It’s not an image of constitutional peace.
But Professor James Mitchell believes that the referendum process can succeed with good faith and careful procedure.
Whilst sharing concerns about the constitutional ramifications of forms of direct democracy like referendums, Mitchell stresses that much depended on the ability of political processes to swerve dogmatism.
“Both sides have to be prepared for compromise. Getting losers consent is absolutely vital to the outcome.”
This may also involve patience on the part of a victorious independence movement, with institutional arrangements arrived at over a longer time scale, with expectation of a slow evolution of the relationship between diverging polities.
“Some of these things may take a long time to sort out. We could be expecting some parts of the new relationship not to be fully established for years, maybe even a decade for some aspects.”
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But wouldn’t that mean we continue to be paralysed in the kind of political interregnum like in the last three years? In that time, only hardliners have seen their political stock rise, whether those who want to cancel Brexit like the Liberal Democrats, or those who aim for a no deal Brexit like Farage and the Brexit party.
Mitchell admits that he “initally had concerns” about what kind of political environment could be created during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
“But there was a real model of local engagement. People really felt empowered by that political process.
“You couldn’t talk about the EU referendum campaign in the same way,” he says.
While there is undoubtedly differences between the 2016 referendum and indyref, such nuances are disregarded by those who would rather see the back of referendums altogeher. In the Brexit era, not only is losers consent hard to come by, consent full stop is a challenge.