THE history of independence movements is one of failure. Between 1816 and 2011, there have been over 400 movements seeking to create a sovereign state – the large majority fail.

The successful movements did not succeed easily. Their eventual victories came only after the shedding of much sweat, tears, and in many unfortunate cases, blood.

Following yesterday’s UK Supreme Court decision, for those in the pro-independence camp, it is worth remembering that the pursuit of independence has never been a straightforward one for movements anywhere in the world.

In response to the Supreme Court, Sir Keir Starmer’s spokesperson put it to journalists that, “It is for those who want to break up the United Kingdom to set out how they propose to do so”. The Scottish independence movement has indeed done so, through the internationally normalised route of a referendum, held based on an electoral mandate.

It has been London’s decision, not Edinburgh’s, to close that avenue off. As a result, it is reasonable for supporters of independence to point to this perceived democratic deficit and scoff at the notion of a ‘voluntary’ Union, which the people of Scotland could leave if only they chose to.

The ‘prisoner, not partner’ narrative will only grow stronger in light of this decision.

But the reality remains: an electoral mandate at Holyrood is not sufficient to secure a referendum, without which the independence movement cannot claim the unequivocal, incontestable popular mandate which is a pre-requisite for secession from any state.

So, the question becomes, what next for the Scottish independence movement? Which tactics? What strategy? How to forge ahead when the clearest path to success is closed off?

In the hours following the announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision, the First Minister reiterated her intention to treat the next UK General Election as a ‘de facto referendum’ on Scotland’s place in the Union.

The details are yet to be thrashed out, and the prospectus is currently unknown. But as far as new strategies go, this one would be an enormous gamble, with unpredictable outcomes, and one loaded against the independence movement.

The SNP would be setting itself an incredibly high bar for a general election – a majority of the vote. Though several have come close, including the SNP itself in 2015, no single party has won a majority of the vote in a Scotland-wide election since the advent of universal suffrage.

The argument, then, will likely be that a majority of votes won by pro-independence parties would constitute a ‘win’. Pro-independence parties have only won a majority of votes once, at the 2015 General Election – when independence was off the table.

But there is a deeper problem of contested interpretation. In any election, voters’ motivations are unclear and somewhat mysterious. The question of why they voted the way they do is always contested by the major parties, inevitably in their own instrumental interest.

Pro-independence parties might point to a majority of votes for them as a mandate for independence, but if Westminster rejects pro-independence electoral majorities as mandates for referendums why would it engage with the notion of one as mandate for secession?

Even if the SNP manages a single-party majority of the vote, the meaning of this will be contested. Unionist voices will characterise it as a protest vote against the Westminster establishment, in the same vein as anti-Conservative tactical voting south of the border. Election studies will inevitably find that voters voted SNP based on a range of issues, not just independence, and London will dismiss claims that this represents a vote for independence.

Back to square one.

And if the pro-independence parties fall merely fractionally short of 50% of the vote, in an election they declared a ‘de facto referendum’, it would be a hammer blow against the independence movement. Few independence movements survive one loss for long, fewer still are lucky enough to eventually get another shot. A second loss can take decades to recover from, if ever.

It wasn’t the 1980 referendum that Québecois nationalists lost by 19 points that spelled the end, but the 1995 referendum they lost by one point.

Scotland’s independence movement needs a new strategy and new tactics. The ‘de facto referendum’ is the only way the SNP can see forwards because it is the only electoral tactic left open with even a vaguely realistic chance of succeeding, beyond getting lucky enough to hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament.

In terms of electoral tactics, it is the final roll of the die. The problem is that the die is loaded against them. If the independence movement allows itself to see no further than electoral strategy, it will lose – even victory will likely end in defeat.

But the ‘de facto referendum’ is not the only strategy left open to the independence movement. In the end, the hard, upwards slog toward independence has only ever been achieved by those who have mobilised and motivated large social movements behind their cause.

Protests, marches, assemblies. Political, social, and economic non-cooperation. All have been used to great effect by secessionists around the world to mobilise and motivate movements through which pressure is built and leveraged to secure independence.

It takes imagination, it takes boldness, and it takes time. It takes a little political virtuosity and a lot of strategic patience. But if the Scottish independence movement cannot find a new, non-electoral strategy to create opportunities for electoral campaigns to win, it will fail.

If it cannot find leadership with the imagination, boldness of vision, and political skill to develop and execute such a new strategy, it will fail.

And if it cannot inspire a broad-based and committed movement to do the hard yards, to win others over one-by-one, to sweat the sweat and shed the tears, it will fail.

Imagination, boldness, virtuosity, patience. If it wants to win and create a new state, the Scottish independence movement must find all of these – it will find none of them in a ‘de facto referendum’.

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