Who will blink first in the great referendum head-to-head?

Written By: Martin Gostwick
Published: March 24, 2017 Last modified: March 30, 2017

Great was the joy caused by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s stunning coup de theatre on that Monday morning when she suddenly confirmed that the Scottish government does indeed intend to call a second independence referendum (‘ScotRef’).

The joy was at least in part derived from the First Minister proving so wrong all those who assumed, in spite of her warnings, that she had been bluffing about this. In one fell swoop, brilliantly timed, she fulfilled all the Yes movement’s expectations and released its thirsting ambition to try again to win freedom.

It came as a big surprise to some, arriving unannounced in advance. She was expected to declare her hand at the SNP’s national spring conference the following weekend. However, it was better to make the position clear to the Scottish people as First Minister, rather than as SNP leader to a party conference.

The Scottish government will, by the time Tribune has published this article, have secured the Scottish Parliament’s approval to call on Westminster to sanction  a legally binding second plebiscite, sometime between the autumn of 2018, and the spring of 2019, ie before Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is concluded.

Utterly shocking in every sense was Prime Minister Theresa May’s flat rejection, in advance of receiving this request from Holyrood, of allowing any referendum until after the Brexit negotiations are completed (“now is not the time”).

Thus has Scotland’s desire to negotiate continued access to the EU single market been summarily rejected. In fact, Scotland has been left without any meaningful role in the coming talks, AND excluded from any possibility of giving a verdict on their outcome, whatever it may be.

Not only that, but it has been indicated that, once out of the EU, some of the EU-derived powers the Scottish government now administers could be repatriated not to Holyrood, but to Whitehall. The Scottish government and Parliament could not be strengthened, as the British Leave campaign had mendaciously suggested, but emasculated.

The Scottish government has an indisputable mandate to be consulted on its relationship with the EU from its last election manifesto, on which it won 56 out of 59 Westminster seats, and more votes than those of all the Unionist parties combined.

Our country is going to be dragged out of the European Union against its will, as the desire to Remain was expressed by a 62 per cent to 38 majority in the June 2016 referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon instantly denounced a “democratic outrage”. She declared: “It is for the Scottish Parliament – not Downing Street – to determine the timing of a referendum, and the decision of the Scottish Parliament must be respected.

“It would be outrageous for the Scottish Parliament to be frozen out of the process. The Scottish Government has a cast-iron democratic mandate to offer people a choice and that mandate must be fulfilled.”

In another interview, she warned: “History may look back on today and see it as the day the fate of the (UK) Union was sealed.”

Many are those of every political persuasion, not just  the SNP and the Greens, and the broader Yes movement, but also some Unionist opponents, who believe that May’s autocratic “No, you can’t” will prove counterproductive, in promoting support for independence.

She has in no way extinguished the constitutional crisis, simply exacerbated it. She has shifted the grounds of debate, from not only the EU-centred questions, to Scotland’s basic right to self-determination as a nation. The finger-wagging and telling us all “this is not a game”, like a schoolmarm rebuking children, is irritating in the extreme.

Is the Downing Street cabal “feart” of the Scottish electorate’s will, as some believe, or is it simply continuing the same ruthless determination to quash any opposition to the hard Brexit which it has been pursuing since the day the UK voted Leave? I believe there is truth in both propositions.

The Scottish government has already indicated its determination to pursue every possible avenue to achieving a second plebiscite. Some early indications of its campaigning strategy could be expected from the SNP spring conference.

Mrs May herself, and her Unionist allies, Labour and the Lib Dems, are suggesting that a referendum might be possible after Britain has left the EU, when the UK’s future trading status has become clearer, and therefore, supposedly, the Scottish people would have a clearer choice.

But this misses the point that Scotland will have had no effective say in the process, or its outcome, and its international position, in terms of trade, and its whole field of policy, will have been fundamentally and irreversibly altered, and with it, the prospectus for making its own future.

Between now and then lie the fraught negotiations themselves, and the excluded Scots delegation will be taking every opportunity to point out terms agreed which sell Scotland short, and, most regrettably, these are likely to be many. The very least Scotland will want is to be part of EFTA (the European Free Trade Association).

An early indication of the popular will on ScotRef can be expected in the local government elections in May, in which the SNP are already expected to make gains. The Tories hope to do so also, as the foremost champions of the Union. Scottish Labour has imploded, and may lose its chief heartland, Glasgow. London Labour’s craven capitulation to the triggering of the Article 50 withdrawal process has floored them, while leader Jeremy Corbyn’s “absolutely fine” agreement to a second indy poll has left the Scottish Labour No supporters spluttering furiously. The Lib Dem’s love of the wonderful UK has invited deserved derision.

In one sense the focus in the municipal polls on the national crisis could be unfortunate, because the powers of local councils, particularly in the field of housing, are themselves an important issue. But from the wider vantage point, the reported sharp increase in Scots registering to vote in all elections, is nothing but positive. Particularly welcome is the marked increase in registration of 16 to 17 year olds. The latest civic survey shows that a big majority of young Scots already support independence.

If Mrs May imagines her obdurate intransigence marks the end of the matter, then to paraphrase the words of our anthem, Flower of Scotland, she needs to be “sent hameward tae think again”.