Despite the 2021 Holyrood election delivering an unprecedented mandate for a referendum, with the largest number of pro-independence MSPs elected in the parliament’s history, His Majesty’s Government and His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition are united in their iron-clad refusal to allow Scots the right to revisit our constitutional future.
So, what are voters expected to do?
Without properly addressing this question, Scottish politics is doomed to forever stand at an impasse, trapped between the Scottish electorate’s desire for a second referendum and a UK parliament which refuses to countenance the public’s legitimate aspiration.
And while I commend those few unionist figures who have been willing to step forward and engage, I say to the rest of my unionist friends across the political spectrum: it is simply not good enough to say that this question was resolved in 2014. A glimpse at any newspaper in the last nine years will show you that. Fingers must come out of ears.
I make this appeal largely to friends in Labour, who must surely see that their own voters expect the party that delivered the Scottish Parliament to have a more sophisticated and honest position on the referendum question than that of today’s Conservative Party.
Just as we in the SNP must recognise that our fellow citizens’ belief in a United Kingdom runs deep and is honourably held, my compatriots who want to preserve the Union must understand the depth of organic support for Scottish independence and the electorate’s desire to have their say. And while we have competing visions of Scotland’s future, every citizen of this country will recognise that the current constitutional stalemate is in no one’s best interests. We owe Scotland better than this.
The debate the SNP will have in March – the most consequential conference the modern party has held – will aim to find a lawful and democratic path forward, but the reality is that our opponents, not in the room, ultimately have a role here too and any strategy must keep that in mind.
We have grappled with big issues like this before. Indeed, the pages of this newspaper have covered many of the twists and turns of SNP debates of the past on big issues such as support for a devolved parliament, the referendum policy and NATO membership.
Our current position remains that we should have a referendum on similar terms to that of 2014, rightly held up as the gold-standard. Yet this seems impossible if the UK Government is unwilling to grant one, as the recent Supreme Court decision made clear.
Not only did the Court’s unanimous ruling shatter the myth that the United Kingdom is a “union of equals”, but it gave complete legal certainty to the fact that Scotland can only leave the Union with Westminster’s consent.
At the time of the judgement many unionist politicians and commentators whooped with delight, and yet again speculated that this would be the downfall of Scotland’s independence movement – an idea that suffers a mercifully short life when it encounters reality.
One option that has been widely covered since the Scottish Government’s decision to go to the Supreme Court last year is that of a de facto referendum: using the next UK General Election as the platform to settle Scotland’s constitutional future. Such a departure from the referendum option that my party has long held would be a major one, and one that must not be taken lightly or birthed out of frustration.
Indeed, the combination of the court judgement and Westminster intransigence must not force us into seeking an answer to the wrong question, or down paths that won’t ultimately allow independence to be lawfully delivered.
Our debate between now and March must be wide-ranging in its consideration and go beyond the sole issue of process. The independence movement’s overarching task remains the same as it was before Lord Reed declared the court’s unanimous verdict: building majority support for independence.
If we approach the present quandary with the sole motivation of settling the independence question as swiftly as possible and only on our own terms, with no regard for the flexibility that politics demands, that will be a mistake. It would carry little appreciation of where public opinion stands on independence – which has shifted just over and under the 50% mark over the past year or so – and would risk undermining one of the pillars upon which an independent Scotland must be built: that of loser’s consent.
For many years we have separated a vote for the SNP and a vote for independence. If we are to ditch that patiently crafted position - central to delivering 16 successful years in government and mainstreaming our cause - then we should do so only on sound, solid merit, not a throw of the dice. It will be difficult to get back if we lose.
When we convene in 10 weeks time, we are not doing so to discuss party or government policy for the next parliament, but to author a new path forward in which we hope the country will give its consent. We should do so with a deep reverence for Scottish public opinion but always have the courage to lead.
We are debating Scotland’s future. That two-word phrase is one which rolls a little too easily off the tongue and should inspire more pause for thought than it often does.
Scotland will only become independent when a majority decide that Scotland should be independent.
While we have been driven to this conference by the die-hardism of Westminster, we must approach our great task of building a solid cross-country majority for an independent Scotland in a way that is deliverable, because it enjoys public consent.
Let us not lose sight of that as we seek a fresh way forward.