The best way to demonstrate majority support for Scottish independence is a referendum. But in the wake of the Supreme Court judgement and with Westminster’s continued denial of Scottish democracy, that ain’t happening any time soon. So, with support for independence rising, how can we allow people to express their view?
Much has been said recently about the pros and cons of using an election as a de-facto referendum. Some have argued that the next Westminster election should be a vote on independence. Others have argued that a Holyrood election would be the better option. But why don’t we use both?
For too long we’ve been chasing the next election, hoping it would be the vote which delivers independence. We need a longer-term plan which uses each and every democratic event as a stepping-stone towards independence.
Of course, the next Westminster election should be about independence. More precisely, it should be about how Scotland becomes independent and what that looks like.
Scottish independence requires two things. One, majority support in Scotland. Two, a negotiated settlement with the British State. Until we can demonstrate the first, we won’t get the second.
The Supreme Court has exposed a gap in the British constitution. There is no way for people in Scotland to consent to staying in or leaving the union without the sanction of Westminster. To be clear, the Court did not say we shouldn’t be able to choose, simply that the current statutes do not allow for it.
Front and centre of our next election manifesto should be a demand to fix the broken British constitution by updating the current devolution settlement. The Scottish Parliament now needs the very powers the Supreme Court ruled it does not have to determine Scottish opinion and a mechanism for negotiating change with the UK.
This is a different proposition from a section 30 Order. It is not about asking permission on a one-off basis to determine public opinion, but about enshrining the right to choose within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. It would in effect give legal expression to the Claim of Right for Scotland.
Making this the central focus of our campaign would present our argument as one of democracy, as well as self-determination. It would demonstrate a determination to exhaust every opportunity to allow the British state to respect democratic norms, and assist in garnering international support.
Clearly, the outcome of the next Westminster election is unknown, but it is probable that the Conservatives will lose. This opens up the prospect of change, and we need to be agile enough to take advantage of new opportunities that may come our way.
It’s possible we can build support amongst other parties for a proposal to give the Scottish Parliament this power. It is entirely consistent with the principles of devolution which other parties say they are committed to. And the parliamentary arithmetic may afford us more leverage at Westminster than ever before, despite our previous electoral success in Scotland.
If we achieve this reform, we could then go forward and exercise this new power at the earliest opportunity. If we are thwarted in our objective, at least we will have been seen to have exhausted every last possible mechanism to gain our independence by consent.
This would then tee up the next Holyrood election, scheduled for May 2026, as an opportunity to mobilise people in support of a vote for independence. We could re-purpose that election as an effective referendum. The franchise is more inclusive, the voting system is fairer and, most of all, the focus is all about how Scotland, rather than the UK, is governed.
In the meantime, we still have an argument to win. This is the year where we should consolidate majority support for independence, maintaining polling levels above 50% and nudging support towards 60% to bolster the case. But support cannot be fuelled by indignation alone. We need to complete our prospectus for what independence looks like. We need a rational and compelling narrative, completely related to the social and economic crises of 2023.
Our opponents will continue to attempt to undermine support for independence by pointing to problems with devolved services. Sometimes criticism will be valid, but often they will lie. And, of course, always pretending there are no constraints on what we can do.
Where we already have the power, we’ve used it to make far better, fairer decisions. If we can do this with one hand tied behind our back, imagine what we could do if the Westminster straitjacket was undone. We need to explain, perhaps more than ever, that independence is essential to tackling the biggest challenges we face. In doing so we will need to be bold and ambitious, offering a vision of a new Scotland that will inspire and mobilise its citizens.