So what do we do now with Theresa May apparently obdurate on blocking the referendum?
It is important to realise politics are fluid. In a week’s time the situation will not be what it is today. The battle for public opinion is key. The unionist media (ie virtually all of it) are asserting continuously, as a uniform line, that opinion polls say the people of Scotland do not want a second Independence referendum in the timescale Nicola Sturgeon has set out – even though that is not true at all. The serial Tory crooks at You Gove came out with an opinion poll right on cue “showing” that support for Independence is hitting new lows. But I suspect it will not be long before evidence emerges that May’s unattractive diktat has profoundly assisted the Independence cause. That will change the game.
So with a wind of public opinion behind her, what does Sturgeon do if Westminster denies a Scottish Parliament request for a referendum? There are several options:
1) Hold an Advisory Referendum
It appears probable (though not undisputed) that the Scottish government can hold a referendum which is not binding, without Section 30 permission from Westminster. It is hard for Westminster to dismiss the result of an advisory referendum, given that Brexit was only an advisory referendum and May has taken as a matter of faith that it is binding.
But as we saw in Catalonia, a boycott by unionist forces can be quite effective in denying the credibility of a non-binding referendum result. I strongly suspect that would be their attitude to an advisory referendum, and I do not see it as a strong way forward.
2) Call a New Holyrood Election
This is an attractive option in many ways. It would be predicated on the plain statement that a new pro-Independence majority would declare Independence unilaterally. That would be the normal and internationally accepted way for a country to secede – a referendum is very much the exception.
But there are problems with this approach. The first is that it would require a two thirds majority of the Scottish parliament to dissolve it, and the Unionists would in all probability simply block it. Forcing them to do that may be a good move, but doesn’t take us far forward.
The second problem, should parliament dissolve, is the campaign itself. As it would not be a referendum campaign, media coverage would not be balanced on independence, but the unionist parties in effect given three times the coverage of the SNP, assuming the Greens continue to be very poorly treated. But as the “Balance” of the referendum coverage was risible anyway, I am not sure this is so much of a drawback.
More difficult is the uncertainty created by the appalling De Hondt system. There is no doubt that the optimum outcome for Independence would be for every Independence supporter to vote SNP 1 and Green 2. But in practice that will never happen on a significant scale, and what is the best way to utilise your vote to achieve independence is simply not predictable. Risking all on a system so prone to statistical fluke is a problem.
3) Call a National Assembly
In the event that Scotland is being blocked from holding either a referendum or an election, the Scottish Government could move to convene a National Assembly. This might consist of all MPs, MSPs and MEPs and that body could declare Independence. To be clear, that would be a revolutionary act in UK terms, but it is perfectly normal for such an act to be required at the birth of a new state and is no bar to it being accepted in international law as a state through recognition by the United Nations General Assembly.
The argument would run that, having been blocked at every turn from holding a democratic vote either by way of referendum or parliamentary election, the Scottish government had taken the option of convening all representatives democratically elected at the national level – MSPs, MPs and MEPs, and these elected representatives of the Scottish people had made the decision. That is perfectly respectable and entirely analogous to the way many EU members such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia became independent.
To return to my original argument, the possibilities depend very much on how public opinion is seen to be trending. May’s calculation appears to be driven firstly by a desire to play to her Brexiteer base in England – which judging by the rabid comments pages across the media is very successful – and secondly by a desire to further polarise Scottish politics to the benefit of the Scottish Tories. She is more than happy for Independence to be decided on a straight SNP vs Tory field. That May thinks she can win such a battle is an example of staggering hubris.
I have been saying in all of my speeches across Scotland in the last year that the game has changed and we have to be prepared for the idea we may have to achieve Independence without the consent or cooperation of the Westminster government. I am happily no longer a radical outlier in this belief.