THE three most powerful words in politics can be found at the start of the Preamble to the United States Constitution. They are: “We the people…”
For centuries this phrase, in various forms, has been used to lend legitimacy to democratic causes around the world.
In Leipzig in October 1989, some 320,000 people gathered to voice their opposition to the tyranny of the East German government. Their famous chant, repeated over and over, was “Wir sind das volk” – “We are the people”.
Its simplicity had power and resonance. Within weeks, the demonstrations, held every Monday, had helped bring down the Berlin Wall.
The same year, here in Scotland, the same phrase surfaced in a celebrated speech at the first meeting of the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
Its convener, an Episcopalian clergyman called Canon Kenyon Wright, captured the nation’s mood when he wondered aloud what Scotland should do if Margaret Thatcher rejected demands for a Scottish Parliament.
“What happens,” he asked, “if that other voice we all know so well responds by saying, ‘We say no and we are the state’? Well, we say yes and we are the people.”
It was an indelible moment in the long and still unfinished story of Scottish self-determination.
Of course, sometimes the people in “we the people” are not “the people” at all.
Sometimes it is more a case of “we, a small group of the people, are trying to give the entirely erroneous impression that we represent the people as a whole, when in fact we represent only ourselves”.
Simply invoking “the people” doesn’t mean you are talking on their behalf.
Which brings us to Nicola Sturgeon’s invocation of “the people of Scotland” in this week’s general election TV debates between the Scottish political party leaders.
The First Minister was under pressure to rule out another independence referendum, given her definitive statement last year (and spelt out clearly in the white paper) that it was a “once in a generation” opportunity.
In both of this week’s debates, Ms Sturgeon said it was “up to the people of Scotland” to decide whether or not there would be another referendum.
It was a classic bodyswerve. Nothing to do with me, guv. I’m just First Minister. Ask the people. They’ll decide.
Now, I have no wish to be unduly indelicate, but this is bollocks.
Whether or not there is an “indyref2” depends initially not on “the people of Scotland” – the nation’s 4.1 registered voters – but on the much smaller group of 105,000 people who are members of the Scottish National Party.
They will have their say at the SNP’s annual conference in September, when the leadership’s view on indyref2 will be presented, debated and voted upon. And this promises to be a defining moment for the modern SNP.
So, what proposal will Ms Sturgeon put to her members?
In Wednesday’s TV debate, she said there would need to be a “material change” in political circumstances before a second referendum could be justified. And she gave the example of a Tory election win followed by a British exit from the European Union, against Scottish wishes.
But what if Ed Miliband emerged as prime minister next month, heading a progressive UK government supported in key votes by the SNP? Would Ms Sturgeon want an indyref2 in those circumstances?
This is where it gets tricky for the SNP leader. Because, from what I’ve seen of the new party membership, they are in no mood to put their ambitions for an independent Scotland on ice.
Frankly, I think Ms Sturgeon would lose if she asked this membership, following a Labour general election victory, to omit all mention of a second referendum from the party’s 2016 manifesto.
SNP members love their leader with a fervour rarely seen in British politics. At the “democracy rocks” rally at the Hydro last year, 12,000 supporters treated her like a rock goddess.
But they love independence more. For many of them, it has become little short of a life force – an article of personal faith. If Ms Sturgeon thinks that within the SNP membership she is more popular than independence, she may be in for a nasty surprise.
Even if she did think she could win her own Clause Four moment, the fight would be enormously divisive in a party currently displaying a phenomenal degree of unity and shared purpose.
So, I think the hard reality is that some kind of SNP manifesto promise on a second referendum is inevitable in next year’s Holyrood election.
The only question is, what kind of promise? The last thing Ms Sturgeon wants is to be locked into a cast-iron commitment to hold a referendum which – depending on the circumstances of the moment – may turn out to be pretty much unwinnable.
To lose one independence referendum may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness.
So here’s my prediction. Regardless of the result of the UK general election, the SNP manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood election will give Nicola Sturgeon the scope to hold indyref2 – but, crucially, it will leave the final decision on whether to call a vote to her, and her alone.
This discretion is, in my view, the logical compromise between the SNP membership’s deep love of their new leader and their fervour for what they see as Scotland’s national destiny.
“Trust me,” Nicola will tell her party. “I won’t let you down. But I will only lead you into another indyref battle when the moment is right.”
Then, and only then, will we the people get to have our say in the matter.
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