Photo of a road sign with two arrows

A fork in the road

Published: 31 August 2022

Author: Stephen Noon

Following his recent interview with Kenny Farquharson in The Times, Stephen Noon, former chief strategist at Yes Scotland and now a research scholar at the University of Edinburgh, explores more fully his thoughts on how to move beyond polarised constitutional debate in Scotland.

With the upcoming Supreme Court case ​on the legality of Scottish Parliament legislation on an independence referendumit looks like we may be approaching a crucial moment in Scotland’s constitutional debate​. Potentially, ​this marks a genuine fork in the road for the Yes movement.

If the answer from the court to the Scottish Government’s reference is a yes​, a referendum should go ahead. Following the 2021 election the SNP/Green partnership government has a mandate to hold a referendum and that political and democratic reality is important. If there is a green light, I would hope that each of us does what we can to make the subsequent campaign as uniting as possible. How Scotland becomes independent ​following a Yes vote is an important part of how we would beindependent, especially in the first years.

But most legal commentators seem to suggest that a referendum is unlikelyIf the Supreme Court rules that an independence referendum Bill would be beyond the powers of the Scottish Parliament, that would give us the chance to pause, take a step back and think about the point Scotland has now reached. 

An election-as-plebiscite approach, as suggested by the First Minister, is an option, but does it really move things forward? Would Scotland not simply end up in a Catalan position, with no more than a questionable mandate and no real progress? I struggle to see how, practically, independence can be won this way, given that the UK government would not recognise any mandate. We are moving into the territory of UDIs and contested recognition. In other words, broken or bitter relations with our nearest neighbour and most important partner – socially, culturally, economically. That is not the ideal birth for a new nation-state.

Are there alternatives to a plebiscite-election? One option might be for the SNP to fight the UK election on a mandate for Scotland to be given the power to become independent, for example, to have the power to pose the question in a referendum.

Another might be to start the independence campaign in a more formal way, with the full prospectus published, groups like Labour for Yes re-established, showing the breadth of the movement, and the grassroots activists sent out to do their thing. Might this get Yes to the sort of levels in the polls, the much discussed 60%, for a sustained period of time, that would then create sufficient moral and political weight for Westminster to agree a second independence vote? Maybe.

There is good politics for the SNP in each of these, which is always important for a political party (they want to win elections). But good politics is not the same as good governance, because the horizons are different: good governance is about having an eye also to what is best in the long term, and that asks different questions and demands different responses than yet more campaigning.

And that is why I think it is time to consider a third way, one that is already very much part of Scotland’s constitutional DNA.

The Scottish Parliament was set up with the hope and expectation of a new politics - the very process, including the Scottish Constitutional Convention, was part of this different way of doing things (although this time, all options should be considered – so no party has a reason to opt out). The explicit aim was to move away from the binary of the Westminster system to create, through PR and even the way the chamber was designed, a politics that was not stuck in a ‘winner takes all’ world of ‘either/or’.

But the independence issue has given Scotland its own binary and, in my judgement, that is not good for our politics, certainly politics as we hoped and believed it could be. This is not an argument for stopping the debate on independence, but simply for choosing (all of us) to do it differently.

Many of those who oppose independence aspire to a Scotland with greater autonomy and in a loose partnership with both the UK and EU. That makes me believe that there is not as much of a gulf between independence and greater autonomy – what you might even call independence within the UK - as the polarised debate might lead us to believe (despite important differences). There is black and white, but also a significant amount of grey. There is a long stretch of this journey that pro-Union and pro-Independence people could walk together now, even if the nature of the final destination is not yet agreed.

So why don’t we begin walking together, with a new constitutional convention, involving politicians, civic Scotland and genuine citizen participation - there are many potential participative models - and see where we end up? No options closed off; no option favoured. An act of compromise by the Scottish Government and Yes movement and an act of compromise too by Labour and Lib Dems, who have done this before, of course, and maybe too by a fresh-slate, incoming new Tory PM?

I’ve just spent 4 of the last 5 years living in Canada and the model for Scotland is often presented as Quebec, with its two referendums. But a better model could be Canada itself, or indeed Australia or New Zealand. These countries became independent from Westminster through a phased increase in powers and responsibilities.

Could the two sides be brought together by a constitutional convention that had some shared path – for example many of the mooted elements of Labour’s ‘rewired UK' - but different possible end points – including the SNP’s independence? Is it possible for us to pause and consider another way? I’d hope so, and that does not mean I think it would be easy.

We can look to Quebec or Catalonia for our models, or we can draw on our own previous (and successful) constitutional experience and consider, for our next steps, something more akin to the Canadian, Australian or New Zealand route map – to greater autonomy and, if the people of Scotland choose, independence. To borrow a phrase used by Pope Francis, if you want to go fast travel alone, if you want to go far travel together. I want Scotland to go far and so, I think, do most of us.

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Stephen Noon is a former Chief Strategist for Yes Scotland (2012-2014) and was senior policy adviser in the first SNP Scottish Government. He is about to begin a research project at the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh looking at the way we do political discourse in Scotland.

Image by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash

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