Analysis: Independence has a movement - but does it have a strategy?

The relevant question is not whether Scotland has an appetite for a second referendum, but whether it has any means of getting there

INITIALLY, it made sense.

In response to Nicola Sturgeon’s assurances that Friday’s publication of the Scottish Government’s Growth Commission would presage a “restart” of the debate over independence – with a reconsideration over the timing of a second referendum due in the autumn – a spokesperson for Theresa May hastily told press that the Scottish people have no appetite for a further plebiscite (presumably, if any Scottish people feel otherwise, they lack the prime minister’s informed perspective).

An SNP first minister and a Conservative prime minister trading blows isn’t news – it’s Monday. Why then, given May’s stated confidence that the issue is of little concern to Scotland’s voters, was this almost immediately followed by a rallying of unionism’s most vociferous proponents?

At a London event hosted by the Policy Exchange, the best and brightest – don’t snigger – of British unionism came together to discuss the current health of the British state and the underpinning ideology they all share, albeit uncomfortably. Michael Gove, Alistair Darling, Arlene Foster and even the notoriously publicity-shy Jim Murphy all gave their views, but it was Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson who appeared to offer the most significant challenge to the official line from Downing Street.

“For all that independence seems to have lost momentum and may feel like yesterday’s battle, it is still real and present,” Davidson warned. “The Union continues to be under threat. Those of us who want to protect it should not therefore downplay the challenge we face.”

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There are several reasons that might account for Davidson’s concern. A cynic might suggest, given that the Tories’ electoral rebounds in Scotland have been attributed by many to their positioning as the safest home for Scottish unionist voters, that Davidson is keen to emphasise the most reliable aspect of the party brand.

Another reason might be that Davidson – who works daily within Scottish politics, as opposed to viewing it from London – isn’t quite as certain as May that the UK’s constitutional future is settled and secure.

The spectacle of 35,000 people mobilising in Glasgow earlier this month in support of independence was a reminder of the extent to which the Yes-voting grassroots remain passionate and active, prompting speculation how many further sympathisers exist on a national scale. That bodes well enough for independence as a movement – at least to cause its enemies concern – but does not account for the obstacles it faces from a strategic standpoint.

If the Scottish Government’s vision for independence remains under construction its rationale for seeking it remains clear: devolution within the UK remains insufficient to protect the democratic will of Scotland, whether because of a commitment to Brexit that the nation voted against, or because of the threat to the devolution settlement that Scotland seems unable to effectively combat, despite the near-miracle of a united front between the SNP, Labour, Greens and Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament.

Ask around Holyrood what precisely the Scottish Government’s recourse will be if the Continuity Bill is found by the UK Supreme Court to be outside of its legislative competence, and answers are thin on the ground. The rhetoric will be familiar enough, and would no doubt intensify once the ‘power grab’ – which Scottish Tories insist isn’t real - actually starts to bite. Yet the Scottish Government’s only practical next step would be to hope that public anger over the flagrant disregard of Scottish democracy translates into sustained support for a second referendum. Given that this did not transpire over Brexit, as many in the SNP hoped, a painfully cautious Scottish Government might not bet the farm on such a gamble.

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However, this challenge to the Scottish Government is matched by complimentary problems that will face their chief opponents. It has been derided by some as Scotland’s “most boring constitutional crisis”, failing to sufficiently energise the public, but such antipathy was far outstripped by the Scottish Conservatives’ abject failure in whipping up any outrage beyond their own ranks over the Scottish Government’s commitment to the Continuity Bill.

If the constitutional battleground became a depressing contest to see which Scottish party can be the least engaging, that dubious victory would go to the Tories. Which may, oddly enough, suit their purposes – but only if they commit to a bizarre and risky strategy.

The challenge for Nicola Sturgeon – and, since 2014, for the SNP at large – has been not only to maintain a nebulous sense of momentum among the pro-independence grassroots, but to expand upon that feeling and instil “hope, optimism and ambition” in a wider electorate that was either unconvinced during the last referendum or remains haunted by memories of defeat.

Ruth Davidson, by contrast, must attempt the opposite: if she wishes to demonstrate her argument that the Scottish people are increasingly uninterested in Scottish affairs, she now has to keep them uninterested. As a politician with a vested interest in keeping voters politically unengaged, she must bore a nation to keep the Union secure. As the pro-Union commentator Alex Massie gloomily wrote in the Spectator last week, what the UK Government needs is “someone to scurry around the country stirring up apathy.” With this in mind, the prominence of Adam Tompkins begins to make an odd kind of sense.

Despite the fact that the inflexibility of the UK Government is what has prompted the latest crisis of the British state, it remains the backup for the Scottish Tories in the event that their attempts to keep the population disconnected from constitutional realities fail.

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If the Scottish Government pressed for a second referendum, judging by its past conduct and pronouncements, it would require a Section 30 order of the Scotland Act, approved by the Scottish Parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. There are few who believe Theresa May’s government would humiliate itself by submitting to such an act, regardless of public sentiment (as its resistance to growing calls for a border poll in Northern Ireland have indicated).

This would leave the present Scottish Government, with its firm resistance to radical solutions outside of constitutional constraints, outside of their comfort zone, although others in the independence movement might welcome such a challenge.

Former SNP MP George Kerevan told CommonSpace: “The will of the Scottish people is sovereign, therefore if the Scottish Parliament with a mandate from the Scottish people calls a referendum on independence, then that’s all we need. If a British government refuses to accept the sovereign will of the Scottish people, then that just proves that the Union is not a union of equals, and should be consigned to the bonfire.”

Asked if he would, under those circumstances, support a Catalan-style scenario of a referendum that went ahead without the support of the UK Government or legality under present constitutional arrangements, Kerevan responded: “The only people who have a right to decide whether Scotland should have an independence referendum are the Scottish people, period. If a Westminster government tries to thwart the will of the Scottish people, it should be ignored.”

In the period immediately following the 2014 referendum, such views were largely restricted to the pro-independence fringe, but have grown in prominence as the Scottish Government’s commitment to pursuing national liberation via constitutional means has painted them into a corner, even while the movement that supports such goals remains political active and ideologically febrile.

The Continuity Bill, however briefly, appeared to signal both a strategic and ideological divergence from the steady, unadventurous caution which has typified the Scottish Government’s approach since the disappointing 2017 General Election result. While Scottish ministers trumpeted the legal legitimacy bestowed upon it by the Lord Advocate, the logic behind the bill remained controversial, in part because it was a step towards what more radical commentators such as Neal Ascherson had long advocated: that Scotland act as if it is already independent.

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However, one piece of cheerfully defiant legislation in extraordinary circumstances has not, as yet, signalled a transition with the Scottish Government from conventional tactics to revolutionary ones: for all the solidarity expressed between Scotland and Catalonia, the Scottish Government has given no indication it will hold a vote – much less proclaim a republic – without the go-ahead from London.

Other avenues, of course, remain open. Theresa May’s government is far from secure, and should her place be taken by Jeremy Corbyn, he may prove more amenable to Scottish concerns (remember when the Labour leader said a second independence referendum would be “absolutely fine”?). However, his fiercely unionist colleagues within the Labour Party, on the left and right, would be unlikely to support the potential break-up of Britain, especially should they achieve their long sought-after moment of triumph. Besides, while the Continuity Bill has demonstrated SNP and Labour can work together on a case by case basis, neither are willing to bet their entire future on each other.

Following the publication of the Growth Commission – which may animate more debates within the independence movement than it will settle – the Scottish Government will still have to outline a strategy for independence that accounts for UK Government obstruction, beyond a vague hope in the power of condemnation, and the slow burn of injustice in the national consciousness. Injustice, no matter how evident, rarely corrects itself.

Picture courtesy of Scottish Government