Are postal voters bolder? Does the solemnity of polling stations cow voters into having second thoughts?
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are likely to be far more postal voters than ever in the Scottish elections on May 6 — almost one-quarter of the electorate. It is easier to be adventurous with a ballpoint pen at your kitchen table.
The radio next to the teapot last week said that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his English Conservative Party were going to veto Scottish bills aimed at strengthening the rights of the child and of local authorities, even though both were passed unanimously by the Scottish parliament, which could prove a significant landmark.
Illustration: Mountain People
It grows easier to vote for the three parties that want another Scottish independence referendum — Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party, Patrick Harvie’s Scottish Greens and former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond’s new-born Alba Party.
Two — three, if Alba overcomes its dire beginning — will make a majority in the Scottish parliament.
The independence camp, its minds made up, apparently stands where it stood before, counting roughly half the pollsters’ samples. So, after May 6, Johnson is almost certain to face a Scottish parliament claiming a mandate to call another independence referendum.
That claim is almost certain to be dumped in front of the UK Supreme Court. Holyrood will implore the court to declare its mandate legal. Westminster’s barristers will remind the court that it has accepted the almighty principle of “parliamentary sovereignty” — the right of a House of Commons majority to overrule anything it does not like.
In reality, Johnson will face three options.
The first is the gutsiest: “Bring it on.”
Grant Scotland leave to hold the independence referendum, fight it furiously and win. He would still have a chance of success. The case for the union, so wanly expressed in England, remains vigorous in Scotland — voters are still split almost 50-50 over independence, with “Yes” a whisker ahead.
Drawbacks: first, that “Bring it on” looked better for the unionists 18 months ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic; second, Johnson cannot get worked up about anything Scottish.
As prime minister of England, he has unexpectedly become quite popular. Why waste energy “up there,” where they seem to regard him as a joke or a menace. Boring.
Second option: Do nothing.
Win the Supreme Court case, establishing that no Scottish constitutional referendum can be legal unless the British government licenses it by operating Section 30 of the Scotland Act (as former British prime minister David Cameron did with the 2014 independence referendum). Then tell the Scottish government and the “Yes” campaign to go away and shut up.
Sturgeon has said repeatedly that a vote for independence has to be legal, in UK terms, to be internationally recognized.
So dare her to throw away caution and run a wildcat plebiscite on her own. That might well be boycotted by the unionist camp. If so, a “Yes” outcome could lead toward the same horrible turmoil that engulfed Catalonia in 2017.
The third option: Dirty tricks.
The 2014 referendum was licensed under the “Edinburgh agreement” between Salmond and Cameron, allowing Salmond considerable influence over its terms. This time, Johnson could offer another Section 30 permission, on conditions the Scottish government would be suicidal to accept.
One condition might be to insist on London’s right to dictate the words on the ballot paper. No more “Yes” or “No” to “Should Scotland become an independent country?” Insert a third question: the choice of near-federal powers over the economy, plus slivers of foreign policy and immigration. In short, something like the old “Devo Max” option many Scots would have gone for in 2014 if it had been available.
Another cunning possible condition would be to allow Scots living elsewhere in the UK to take part. In 2014, expat Scots in London, Liverpool and elsewhere were loud in their outrage at being denied a voice in their nation’s future, when Europeans living in Scotland were encouraged to vote.
The idea sounds democratic, but it is disingenuous. The huge Scottish diaspora (more than 700,000 in England alone) is heavily unionist and most of its members — though Scotland-born — are well-rooted residents rather than migrants temporarily away from home.
These are, of course, wrecking amendments. Any third option on the ballot paper would almost certainly ensure that no clear majority for independence could emerge, while letting Scots in the rest of the UK take part would decisively bump the scales toward the union.
At the same time, and it is part of the calculation, “disenfranchising” Anglo-Scots could make the government in Edinburgh look undemocratic to the outside world, especially to the EU, which an independent Scotland would want to rejoin.
At this stage, it is a fair guess that Johnson will go for some variant of the third option. If he can make granting a referendum sound like a magnificent gesture of reconciliation and statesmanship, he can present Sturgeon’s rejection as utterly unreasonable. Yet reject it she must.
Ciaran Martin, former constitution director in the Cabinet Office from 2011 to 2014, sees Westminster’s intention to block any Holyrood request for a referendum as the moment when the union ceases to rest on consent and relies on force of law: “What England wants, England gets.”
That leaves confrontation. On one side, Westminster is clawing back authority across the UK, undercutting devolved ministries with new institutions run from London. Its challenge to the two Holyrood bills on the rights of the child and of local government is the latest example.
On the other side, the desire for Scottish independence, though growing incrementally, seems to be hardening. Among Scots aged 16 to 35, it stands at 72 percent. The clock is ticking.
Long ago, when the campaign for Scottish self-government began, skeptics set a mocking question: “So what will you do when England says No?”
The easy answer now could be: “We’ll wait,” but there is a feeling that the time for waiting might be short. The UK is an old ice floe and the climate is warming fast.
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