IndyRef2. How To Make It Happen, Democratically.

Opinion polls tell us that the appetite for a second referendum on Scottish independence has grown during the Covid pandemic. The SNP government in Holyrood, which is widely expected to win the upcoming general election, is under pressure to deliver.

The Scottish National Party has recently published an 11 point plan which sets out how the party sees the route to a second referendum.

This plan has three major flaws.

The first is the need to persuade the UK government to grant the power to hold the referendum. There is little sign of the current UK government (or one that might be waiting in the wings) acceding to this request in the foreseeable future. Without agreement from the UK government, the legitimacy of a referendum run by the Scottish government would certainly be contested by the substantial proportion of the Scottish electorate that is opposed to independence.

The second major flaw in the SNP’s plan is that it appears to be proposing a referendum on the principle of Scottish independence, leaving the detail to be worked out after the event. Since 2016 we have been living through an example of this method of leaving a union and it has not been pretty. It beggars belief that the independence movement cannot see the utter folly of repeating the mistakes of Brexit.

Some more thoughtful participants in the debate, on both sides, have suggested two referendums. First, one which asks us to vote on the principle of independence. Second (if the answer to the first one is “leave”), a vote on the detailed proposal for independent national sovereignty. This approach is far more intelligent and practical than the ones taken in 2014 (IndyRef1) and 2016 (Brexit), but still relies on the UK government’s agreement for holding the referendums.

The third major flaw is the lack of democratic legitimacy in the plan that’s being proposed by the SNP. They assume that by winning the upcoming Holyrood election they will have a mandate to press for a second independence referendum. This is not good enough.

In the 2016 Scottish Parliament election the SNP won a majority of seats on the back of less than 26% of the votes of the registered electorate. That’s not a mandate for choosing the colour of the curtains in Bute House, never mind constitutional change of the magnitude of leaving the UK.

The Brexit referendum was carried by votes from less than 38% of the registered electorate.

Our systems of democracy are far too crude to allow the claim that whoever wins a general election or a conventional referendum reflects the will of the people.

If the independence movement is serious about democracy it must do much better than force its will on the people of Scotland via a system that pretends a minority is a majority.

In order to get around the obstacle of the UK government, and to ensure that a decision to break away from the UK is truly democratic I suggest the following:

Firstly, the Scottish Parliament votes to open and oversee a petition which asks everyone on the electoral roll in Scotland to register their support for an independence referendum. It can do this without permission from the UK government.

Note that I’m proposing the petition is run by the Parliament, not the SNP government. The process must be kept away from any one party’s influence. The independence movement is much broader than the narrow interest of the SNP.

The petition will be time limited and will run concurrent with a campaign encouraging everyone to make sure that they are registered to vote. Every signatory to the petition will be cross-referenced and verified with the electoral roll.

If a majority of the electorate signs the petition the Scottish Parliament will be duty bound to demand that the UK government grant the right to hold a referendum. With a clear majority of the electorate unambiguously in support it would be constitutionally and morally impossible for the UK government, of whatever colour, to refuse.

Assuming majority support via the petition, the next step would be for the proponents of independence to form a commission which would be charged with describing in detail how the separation of Scotland from the UK would be managed, how the “big” issues (e.g. borders, currency, citizenship, etc.) would be resolved, and what the costs would be of disentangling Scotland from UK bureaucracy and setting up Scottish replacements. This information would be presented in a single document with an executive summary of a few easy-to-read pages. Let’s call it The Independence Plan.

The referendum ballot would give a single option:

“I want Scotland to leave the UK under the terms described in The Independence Plan”

Only those who support the plan would cast a ballot.

A simple majority of the registered electorate would carry the proposition and Scotland would start the transition to independence as described in The Independence Plan.

This route to independence ensures that it will have the support of a true majority of the Scottish electorate, and they would have a clear idea of what they were voting for. These two things are crucial for an independent Scotland to have a chance of being a success.

If we follow the SNP’s plan, Scotland is in danger of being removed from the UK by the will of a minority of the electorate, and enduring a prolonged period of bureaucratic chaos that will make Brexit look like a walk in the park.

4 thoughts on “IndyRef2. How To Make It Happen, Democratically.

  1. Interesting proposal Malcolm – thanks for the post!
    I got to thinking about things earlier today and wondered why people see Scottish independence and being part of a union with the rest of the current UK as being mutually exclusive. True, that would require a change to the union to one similar to the EU comprised of independent states, but it would address many, if not all of the issues which are driving people to think that an independent Scotland would be better off.
    After all, there is nothing stopping the nations of the current UK agreeing that each is sovereign and independent, but also agreeing that we form a union to share a currency, border controls, intelligence and even (possibly) defence. Extend that to free trade and common agreed standards and we have all the benefits of the current UK whilst also delivering on the desire for self-determination and the ability to change our democracy for the better, perhaps even going as far as the changes you propose.
    Is that just crazy?

    • Not crazy. Certainly more sensible than both the status quo and the fantasy of independence. There is no such thing as independence, only interdependence. The question is how do we arrange and manage our dependence on each other so that we are able to prosper, equitably and sustainably.

      The problem that I have with the current union, the proposed independent Scotland, federalism, and your novel version of union is that they all assume that national sovereignty is the starting point: that ‘nation’ is the natural primary unit of democratic government.

      If we were tasked with designing a system from scratch that organises our collective effort for the common good I can guarantee that we wouldn’t arrive at parliamentary democracy (sic) which purports to represent a population of millions but delivers almost absolute power into the hands of a tiny group of people on the back of votes from a minority of these millions.

      We must do better if we are to continue to inhabit this little island planet on which we all depend.

  2. Malcolm- a few comments on your thought provoking article:
    1. I personally think a majority in Holyrood (voted in by PR) is a democratic mandate to hold an independence referendum. Contrast to Westminster (FPTP) with Brexit referendum. Your suggestion for obtaining a referendum is bureaucratic and does not respect the fact under a parliamentary democracy Holyrood elections are the democratic method of assessing wishes of Scottish electorate.
    As for the referendum itself I am sympathetic to 2 stage vote process but have always wondered what would happen if public vote Yes to independence but No to plan. This would leave Scottish democracy in limbo. I would also suggest that any Westminster government will be implacably hostile to independence and use the second step as an opportunity to stall and thwart independence
    On referendum itself I would have a 2 step process:
    a)50+ majority of votes cast
    b)supermajority for voters under 60 to acknowledge that independence is a long term decision and would impact the lives of those under 60 more. This suggestion is in response to Brexit referendum where elderly electorate voted No to such an extent that by time Brexit was implemented there were more people alive who had voted to Remain.

    Two final thoughts – your column and my thoughts are a bit academic as it becomes increasingly clear that Westminster will never agree to an independence referendum where Yes may win – witness recent comments by Iain Murray on Sky.
    Independence will become inevitable when more 60% of population are in favour. This can only be achieved by concentrating on Why we need independence rather than How we achieve it. If Yes movement achieves a high level of support Westminster block can be circumvented by obtaining European and international recognition and the first few years of independence will be easier with a country more united behind independence.

    • JP58,

      We disagree on the quality of the democratic system in operation at Holyrood.
      PR is a fudge. It’s a feeble attempt to make a very crude approximation of democracy marginally less crude.

      The result of a general election under PR is exactly the same as FPTP: a majority of seats is won thanks to the votes of a minority of the electorate. I can’t see how this is a democratic mandate for day-to-day government, never mind an upheaval of the magnitude of leaving the UK.

      We have been educated to believe that democracy was ultimately attained in the 20th century with the advent of universal franchise. But the evidence in front of us – the capture of power by tiny elites at the apex of political parties funded by wealthy individuals and corporations – suggests otherwise.

      We have to recognise that our systems of collective decision-making for the common good are still in the early stages of their evolution. Much work needs to be done to transform these systems into something that can justifiably be called ‘democratic’. Ending the pretence that a minority of votes represents the opinion of the majority of the electorate would be a good start.

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