Towards the end of her spring conference speech, Nicola Sturgeon evoked the late Canon Kenyon Wright’s rhetorical question regarding Mrs Thatcher’s opposition to devolution.
“What happens,” Wright had asked in 1989, “if the other voice we know so well responds by saying – we say No and we are the state?” His answer, which the First Minister said was “so relevant again today”, was the memorable: “Well we say Yes and we are the people.”
Setting aside the fact the SNP boycotted the Scottish Constitutional Convention led by Wright and were none too complimentary about his stewardship at the time, the SNP leader’s decision to quote those words was interesting, for it implied that the mood in favour of constitutional change then and now was somehow analogous.
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There are, to be fair, some similarities. In the late 1980s most of Scotland’s MPs were committed to a Scottish Assembly the Conservative government had no intention of agreeing to, while in the late 2010s most Scottish MPs believe in an independent Scotland another Tory government has no intention of facilitating.
There are also significant differences. By the time Kenyon Wright made that memorable speech, almost every opinion poll suggested devolution was the “settled will” of the Scottish people, whereas the same can’t be said today of independence – yesterday’s Panelbase poll support at just 44 per cent. Indeed, it isn’t even clear a majority of Scots even want a second referendum, although Alex Salmond believes this to be a “collective delusion”.
It was this ambiguity that fuelled much of last week’s “four-day war”, with both the Scottish and UK government’s claiming to speak on behalf of “the Scottish people”, by which they meant majority public opinion. In saying “now is not the time”, the Prime Minister was clearly calculating that a majority of voters either wanted her to stand up to the SNP or didn’t really care, while Ms Sturgeon hoped that by accusing the wicked Tories of “blocking” another referendum support for independence would rise.
It also leads inexorably to the next move in the constitutional chess game, a two-day debate on “Scotland’s Choice” beginning tomorrow and a Holyrood vote on another Section 30 Order on Wednesday evening. Now setting aside the fact the “will of parliament” is only wielded by the Scottish Government when it suits them, the intention is to keep up the political pressure on Theresa May.
As the First Minister said in Aberdeen on Saturday, if a majority of MSPs endorse the Scottish Government’s position, then at that point a “fair, legal and agreed referendum” ceases to be just an SNP proposal but “the will of the democratically elected Parliament of Scotland”.
This is all well and good, although of course even when Holyrood says Yes to a Section 30 Order Westminster will simply repeat its holding line from last week. As one independence-supporting MSP put it (with Kenyon Wright in mind): “If Mrs May continues to say No, then there’s nothing the SNP can do about it.”
A few days ago Ms Sturgeon insisted she had “various options”, but refused to say what they were. Some journalists got excited because she refused to rule out the Catalan option, i.e. holding an “advisory” referendum if the UK Government refused to budge, but that didn’t mean it was seriously being entertained.
From what I can discern, the SNP leadership is wedded to the precedent of 2012-14. The trouble with an informal ballot, as in Catalonia, is that it lacks either domestic or international legitimacy and also runs the risk of being boycotted by those opposed to both a referendum and its proposition.
Also discussed in Aberdeen was the idea of an early Holyrood election, the rationale being that if Theresa May thinks the SNP needs a fresh mandate for independence then Nicola Sturgeon might resign and produce one. But as at Westminster, where early-election speculation seems to be on the rise once again, not only is contriving an election outside the usual dates fiendishly difficult but politically risky should it occur. Voters don’t generally like politicians engineering elections to suit their own agendas.
The SNP’s MPs could, I suppose, resign en masse (as Unionists did in protest at the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement), sparking 56 by-elections at Westminster, but although dramatic, it wouldn’t really achieve anything and risk some of those seats falling back into Labour or Tory hands.
That just leaves a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, a nuclear option floated by one conference delegate at a fringe meeting on Friday afternoon. The SNP, however, simply isn’t that daring. Clapping in the House of Commons is about as radical as they get; their days of direct action and (properly) disrupting parliament were long ago jettisoned in favour of respectability.
So that leaves the final and most likely option following Wednesday’s Holyrood vote, yet more sound and fury. Nationalists are generally good at this and can, if necessary, keep it up for several years, which they might well have to do if Mrs May sticks to her guns about not even discussing a Section 30 order until after Brexit has “bedded in”, whatever that might mean.
But as the First Minister pointed out yesterday, the pertinent question is “if not now, when?” Ms Sturgeon accepted that if the Brexit timetable changed then her preferred six-month window between late 2018 and early 2019 “may change as well”. This was also the olive branch extended in her conference speech, representing a rapid departure from the demand last week for every detail of a second referendum to be decided in Edinburgh rather than through negotiations with London.
So that’s where we’ll likely end up later this week, the beginning of a long, slow dance around the issue of timing, which actually suits both sides. The First Minister also said yesterday that timescale shouldn’t be determined by what’s “convenient” for her or the PM, but that’s probably what’ll happen: May will refuse to countenance a referendum for as long as EU negotiations are ongoing, while Sturgeon has time to produce “material change” in levels of support for independence.
In the interim, the First Minister can sit tight, quietly saying “I told you so” as Brexit (most likely) unravels and nudging her party into a more realistic position on defence, currency, the deficit and everything else that appeared unconvincing last time round. And by calling for a Section 30 order long before it’s likely to be granted, Ms Sturgeon has also reconciled the “impatient” and “cautious” wings of her party; the former have got what they want, while the latter won’t have to worry about it anytime soon.
So only much later, most likely at some point during 2020, will Canon Kenyon Wright’s line “we say Yes and we are the people” stand any chance of applying to independence as much as it did to devolution nearly three decades ago.