The answer, when it came, was insultingly brief – perhaps deliberately so. Contrary to some speculation at the weekend, Johnson’s letter to the First Minister showed no signs of careful thought or legal briefing or even a sense that these were weighty matters. A quick reference to the ‘once in a generation’ canard, some false claims about Scottish public services, and that was it. No Section 30. No second independence referendum. Concentrate on with the day job, Nicola.
Some people are after taking drastic measures – even a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, justified by an appeal to international law. Politically, this is bonkers, given the twin need to win the consent of people and institutions within Scotland and the recognition of the wider world – both of which are political, not legal, considerations. How would UDI even work? Do you still need to seize the post office and the tv stations like they did in the old days? Does the provisional government broadcast the news from Pacific Quay? Where are you getting your weapons from (you would need them)? What do you do about the army and the police, and the huge numbers of citizens who would react in horror and alarm? UDI at this point would essentially require a coup d’état, and you can’t enforce a coup with battalions of keyboard warriors.
Others want to press on with a referendum regardless, and to dare Westminster to challenge it in court. This is at least a more realistic proposal on tactical grounds, but if the required endpoint is a referendum that compels the UK government to act in accordance with the result then this, too, is an unpromising path. As Aileen McHarg and Chris McCorkindale have said, Westminster holds far too many of the constitutional cards – and could even choose to legislate that holding a referendum is definitively not in Scotland’s power. An unauthorised referendum would be almost impossible to organise and would be boycotted by unionists. It would lack precisely what we need to achieve: legitimacy.
At which point, people get very cross. Recriminations begin. The recent past is searched to find junctures when we could have taken a different road, and somehow not ended up here. But we have ended up here because here is where we have always been. I get that this makes people want to howl with frustration, and to deny that it is so. However, the fact that we are, indeed, legally, constitutionally and politically stuck in the UK until the UK decides to recognise our demands is something we shouldn’t be trying to deny or sidestep. This is the key fact we should be clasping to our collective bosom. It has the power to warm the heart, not chill it.
It’s easy to look to the Edinburgh Agreement as a precedent for what should happen now. But Cameron only agreed to the 2014 referendum because he was sure, in his complacent privilege, that he’d win it. If he’d for a moment thought there was a real threat, he’d have blocked it. The Edinburgh Agreement and the resulting referendum made the UK seem like something it isn’t – it fed into the unionist myth of an equal partnership of consenting nations, made it seem real for a few short years. But they have never actually meant it, and certainly not when it comes down to something as fundamental as the territorial integrity of the state itself.
Now, of course, they’re not looking to hide the true state of affairs. Perhaps they don’t feel the need; or perhaps they think they can just keep on cleaving to the 2014 result as Scotland’s consent to their rule despite the ongoing passage of time and the multiplying changes in circumstance.
Are we then beaten? Is that it? No, of course not. As the lawyers keep pointing out, this is a political struggle, a point we keep losing sight of in our endless focus on party tactics, constitutional process and legal procedure. In taking this focus we sometimes assume that we already have the very thing we’re actually trying to achieve – the demand for independence as something like the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish electorate.
But this isn’t yet achieved. The events of the last ten years have done much to solidify a bloc of opinion around this demand. The 2014 referendum campaign laid the basis. Brexit has added to it, though not perhaps yet as much as it might have done. And now we have the return, in its full horror, of the very democratic deficit that the Edinburgh Agreement appeared to put aside. It was the democratic deficit in the 1980s and 90s that made devolution the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people. And now? We face an obstructive Westminster, unbothered by talk of mandates, using the tattered figleaf of an ever more distant referendum result to cover the nakedness of its contempt for the principle of self-determination. This democratic deficit is steroidally grotesque. There are plenty of people in Scotland who may will have been sceptical of independence hitherto who will be seriously unimpressed by this look.
If there is then no easy path to a legitimate referendum, and therefore to independence, that shouldn’t mean we give up, or turn on ourselves. That’s exactly what Johnson and co are after – they want to humiliate and demoralise. Having Westminster expose itself like this opens another front in the battle to grow the majority we need as an absolute precondition for establishing a different future. It’s not simple, nor guaranteed, but it’s the vital work that still needs doing.