The United Kingdom and Scotland are both caught in their own constitutional deadlocks. Westminster is caught in a Brexit bind, with no majority for anything. Both Conservative and Labour leaderships seem to accept that the voters gave Parliament a mandate in June 2016 – but nobody can explain what the mandate was for, given the multiple versions of Brexit on offer. So the critical decision is constantly postponed.
Scotland voted to say in the UK in 2014 and to stay in the EU in 2016 but has been told that it cannot do both. The Scottish Parliament has a pro-independence majority but in the nation at large there is no combination of Yes/No and Remain/leave commands majority support. SNP members have been pushing for another independence referendum but support for independence remains where it was in 2014 and Brexit has failed to provide the expected boost.
The SNP has already thrown its weight behind a second Brexit referendum, joining the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Change UK and some Labour MPs but the prospects for this are uncertain. The First Minister’s statement of 24 April is another attempt to break the deadlock. There will be another independence referendum bill, which should pass given the independence (SNP and Green) majority in the Scottish Parliament. It will not, however, be activated without Westminster’s agreement. As that will not be forthcoming, the bill will become SNP policy for the 2021 election. If there is another pro-independence majority, it may then be difficult for Westminster to refuse, given the precedent of 2014. The hope for the pro-independence side will be that the fallout from Brexit will push support up from the 45 per cent where it has been since then.
In the meantime, the First Minister has proposed cross-party talks on further powers for the Scottish Parliament. The last such effort was the Smith Commission after the 2014 referendum. That resulted in important new powers, notably in taxation and welfare, but the process was rushed. More time could have been taken to consider issues such as the intricate connections between taxation, welfare and labour markets. Universal Credit was largely off the agenda on the grounds that it was already been rolled out - in the event, it has been delayed and seriously flawed in practice. Much of the inter-party discussion seemed to involve the SNP asking for as much as it could get and the unionist parties conceding the least they could. Input from the general public was minimal.
This is where the First Minister’s other suggestion comes in, for a Citizens’ Assembly. This is a group of citizens tasked with deliberating an issue over a period of time and trying to come up with a consensus or at least a set of options. In contrast to normal politics on the hustings, it emphasises deliberation and the possibility of changing people’s minds. The Citizen’s Assembly has become a popular device for tackling issues that the political class finds difficult, notably in Ireland. Gordon Brown and others have suggested a UK Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, although it may be too late for that.
A Scottish Citizens’ Assembly offers the possibility of taking the constitutional question out of battle lines of Yes/ No and Remain/ Leave where it has been stuck in recent years. It could bring in new ideas about where Scotland fits into the political configuration of these islands, Europe and the world. Yet, whatever emerges will still have to come back to the political parties, the Parliament and the public.
This all poses risks for all the parties. For opposition parties it risks blunting their main line of attack on the SNP. For the nationalists it may mean rethinking independence. In a tense political climate, this will not be easy.
Michael Keating is Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change