openDemocracyUK: Opinion

It’s not enough to vote for an independence referendum, you need to campaign for it

Supporters of a Scottish independence referendum can’t just wait for governments to act

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
11 May 2021, 1.51pm
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon says an independence referendum is a case of 'when, not if'
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Watching the Westminster commentariat over the weekend reminded me of a lesson I learned from my pet hamsters when I was nine. There is something particularly sickening about seeing a mammal eat its own pups.

As it became clear that a majority of MSPs elected in Scotland would be from parties who had committed to an independence referendum, the cheerleaders of the Westminster system started to invent new tests for whether there is a mandate for such a vote.

‘The mother of parliaments’ claims to have parented parliamentary democracies around the world. And in a parliamentary democracy, a mandate for doing something is derived from securing a parliamentary majority for those promising to do it.

But now, mother was scoffing her young to save herself.

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Yesterday, Andrew Neil, a leading courtesan of the Palace of Westminster, declared “a majority in the Scottish Parliament is not the same as a mandate from the people”.

Apparently it wasn’t a parliamentary majority that mattered. It was an SNP majority alone, irrespective of the Scottish Greens also having a commitment to independence in their manifesto. “During the campaign,” he wrote for the Daily Mail, “the Greens assured voters they could vote for an environmental agenda without endorsing a second referendum or independence.”

That’s a particularly odd claim given the Scottish Green Party literally spent money advertising its support for independence on Facebook, and talked about it repeatedly in each of the televised debates. Of course, many Green and SNP voters will, on balance, oppose independence just as many Labour and Liberal Democrat voters will, on balance, support it. But in a parliamentary democracy, voters weigh up manifestos, and choose or not to endorse the programmes they contain.

For some in Westminster, a majority of the popular vote was suddenly what mattered. But then it transpired that, while pro-independence parties got 49% of constituency votes they got 50.1% of regional votes. Which one is it?

A distraction is what it is. We live in a parliamentary democracy. A majority of MSPs in the new Scottish Parliament ran on manifestos committing them to an independence referendum. That’s the mandate. That’s how it works in the system that Westminster birthed.

The Claim of Right

On 30 March 1989, 58 of Scotland’s then 72 MPs gathered at the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, along with church leaders, local government and trade union representatives, and signed ‘the Claim of Right’.

“We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention,” it said, “do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.”

All but one Scottish Labour MP signed, as did every Scottish Liberal Democrat MP.

Ten years and two months later, another now-famous sentence echoed around the same hall: “The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened.”

The constitutional convention had won. The devolution era had begun.

In the coming weeks, the new generation of Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrat parties will need to decide if the principle their parties supported 32 years ago is one to which they still subscribe.

Both parties ran in this Scottish election opposing an independence referendum. But the question now isn’t whether they want one. It’s whether, having elected a majority of MSPs who do, the Scottish people still have the “sovereign right” pledged to us all those years ago? Or is the United Kingdom a compulsory arrangement?

And this isn’t just a question for Scottish politicians. If Boris Johnson chooses to block an independence referendum, he will be leading a direct confrontation with democracy. Keir Starmer and Ed Davey will have to pick a side for Labour and the Lib Dems respectively, and their choices could well define their political careers.

Political reality

Walk out of the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall and you’re perched on the Mound – in Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town, looking north over the Georgian New Town, across the Firth of Forth and to the hills of Fife beyond.

The sweeping streets below were built with the plunder of empire and slavery that the union between Scotland and England gave access to, and are named to commemorate it: Thistle Street and Rose Street after the respective national flowers, Princes Street, Queen Street and George Street after the then Royal family, St Andrew Square to the East and, originally, St George Square to the West, after the patron saints – though the latter was soon renamed as Charlotte Square to avoid confusion with another George Square.

It was in Bute House on Charlotte Square that, in 2012, permission for the 2014 independence referendum was given in the Edinburgh Agreement, signed by David Cameron and Alex Salmond, who would both go on to disgrace themselves. At the time, this was essentially a matter for UK domestic politics. Support for Scottish independence trailed at around a third. Few people believed it would happen. For Cameron, this was a piece of political management, a concession to a quirky fringe interest while he got on with the real business of slashing public services.

If leaving the EU led to the UK breaking up, other countries might pause before following Britain’s example

The situation now could scarcely be more different. Support for independence floats at around 50%. There is a serious prospect of the dissolution of a major global power. With the UK leaving the EU and the Scottish government seeking to return, this is a question of state for governments across Europe, and the world.

Over the past couple of months, I have been part of a small group called ‘Europe for Scotland’, led by openDemocracy founder Anthony Barnett (though oD is not involved in the campaign) and organised by a brilliant young Italian/German couple Andrea Pisauroand Janina Jetter. Together, we organised a letter calling on the EU to “clearly signal a path for Scotland to become a member in advance of any independence referendum”. It was signed by major cultural figures from every EU member state and every nation in the UK, including Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, German novelist Daniel Kehlmann, Dutch-American sociologist Saskia Sassen and English author Philip Pullman.

The basic point of the intervention was very simple. There is significant international solidarity with Scotland’s predicament. Now is the time to express it.

The EU

One major global power with an interest in this debate is, clearly, the EU. It seems almost inevitable that an independent Scotland would return to membership, and if leaving the EU led to the UK breaking up, other countries might pause before following Britain’s example.

The internal politics of the EU are complicated and changeable, but there is one major event happening in the autumn, which many in Scotland will soon be following closely.

On 26 September, Germany will elect its next parliament. After a surge in support for the Greens, and collapse for the Christian Democrats, the two parties are level in the polls.

Although manifestos for these elections aren’t yet published, the German Green Party has long been sympathetic to Scottish independence – its Scottish sister party is in favour and the SNP sat alongside the Green group in the European Parliament until Brexit got done.

In autumn 2016, months after the EU referendum, the European Greens organised their annual conference in Glasgow, an explicit acknowledgement of Scotland’s overwhelming vote to remain. After a welcoming address by Nicola Sturgeon herself, Green politicians from across the continent expressed clear solidarity with a Scottish electorate being pulled out of the EU against its will.

In their manifesto for the 2017 federal elections, Germany’s Greens supported offering Scotland a clear path back to the EU in the case of independence. And ahead of these Scottish elections, the German Green MEP Terry Reintke – a graduate of Edinburgh University – was the star speaker at the launch of the Green campaign in the North East of Scotland.

In their 2017 manifesto, Germany’s Greens supported offering Scotland a clear path back to the EU

“I do events across Europe about Brexit,” she said. “The position of Scotland is always one of the first questions to come up. There is a broad consensus across European capitals that, if Scotland becomes independent, our door is open to rejoin the EU.”

It’s not just Germany’s Greens who are broadly supportive. The Christian Democrat MEP David MacAllister is chair of the European Parliament foreign affairs committee. With a father from Glasgow, MacAllister has made supportive noises about Scotland’s return to the EU as an independent country.

But what the Scottish government needs now isn’t just theoretical support for a return to the EU in the case of an independence vote. It’s diplomatic pressure on Johnson to accept a referendum in the first place, and that seems much more likely to come from a Green government in Berlin.

Of course, it’s not just Germany that matters. Anything could happen in next year’s French presidential election, but current polls show a likely rerun of last time, with Emmanuel Macron once more facing off against the far-Right Marine Le Pen before being re-elected.

Macron’s public position has been broadly supportive of Scotland – during an interview last year, he declared: “Vive L’Écosse européenne.” But whether or not he’s willing to apply pressure is a much bigger question.

As it is with Joe Biden. Famous for talking up his Irish roots and a vocal critic of both Brexit and Johnson, the new US president may feel the debate has moved on since Barack Obama came out against independence in 2014. But as yet, there is little reason for him to act on any such mood. A generally careful diplomat, the most likely thing for him to say is nothing. Unless something changes.

Direct action and international solidarity

Sturgeon proposes to legislate for an independence referendum and dare Johnson to take her government to court. A referendum, she says, is a matter of “when, not if”. For the Scottish government, this is probably the sensible route.

But if Johnson does attempt to block such a vote, then it won’t be enough for independence supporters to meekly applaud the first minister and move on. And if the courts rule in his favour – as they may well do – then we can’t just shrug, then shut up and eat our cereal.

As they did in the 1980s, it will be important for the institutions of Scottish civil society to step up and act: the churches, the universities, the NGOs, artists and cultural figures including the organisers of our famous festivals, who have been so hampered by Home Office visa requirements. They may feel it’s not for them to take a position on independence. But it certainly is for them to take a position on democracy.

And it’s not just for institutions to act. Democratic rights have only ever been won when people grip onto them and refuse to let go. That will likely mean civil disobedience, including gumming up London’s thoroughfares and blockading the institutions of the British state within Scotland, from the Faslane nuclear weapons base to the Scotland Office.

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In 2016, Scotland’s Conservatives successfully spread panic about an independence referendum. Five years on, the electorate is no longer afraid

There is now significant sympathy for Scottish independence across the world. But it’s no more than that – an occasional answer to a surprise question in an interview otherwise about something else, a furrowed eyebrow, an apologetic look or a wry smile.

If supporters of Scottish independence want a referendum to actually happen, then voting for politicians who support one is not enough. And nor is the endless river of marches through Scottish city centres, which are all too easy to ignore.

For three centuries, Scotland’s people and institutions have learnt how to wield soft power as a nation without its own state. Probably more than any other country without a seat at the UN, Scotland is recognised as such throughout the world. As is that amorphous thing, Scottish foreign policy: ask people on each side of the divide in Israel/Palestine what they think of it, and they will tell you. Trust me, I have.

If the referendum for which Scottish voters granted a mandate last week takes place, it will not be because of passive observers flicking between news channels and social media accounts. It will be because enough Scottish voters have, as they did in 2014, become activists and organisers, built connections around the world, looked the wrath of the British state in the eye and responded with the steady smile of those who know that democracy is on their side. And that it’s time.

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