Scottish independence: SNP needs a plan B if Boris Johnson refuses permission for indyref2 – Kenny MacAskill

An illegal referendum is a red herring to frighten folk but there are alternative ways to hold a vote or the issue could be decided by the next Scottish Parliament election, writes Kenny MacAskill

There's growing frustration among supporters of Scottish independence, says Kenny MacAskill (Picture: John Devlin)

My SNP colleagues councillor Chris McEleny and fellow MP Angus MacNeill have been castigated by some party members, and even abused by a few others, for the audacity of demanding a Plan B for holding an independence referendum. For those for whom this nationalist debate is a mystery, it’s code for what’s to be done if Boris Johnson, or any other UK PM for that matter, simply says no to allowing a second vote.

Of course, it has been ruled out by the Tories but that didn’t stop the mantra chant continuing from the SNP leadership of there being a referendum later this year. Like many I viewed that as an impossibility and for my sins joined my colleagues on the “naughty step”. “Have faith”, “don’t rock the boat”, “they have a plan” were all shouted at us. As with the second coming of the Messiah, it was to mysteriously arrive, albeit at least specified as being this autumn, not future millennia.

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But now we’re in July and there’s no chance of one this year. Coronavirus can be blamed with other priorities and social distancing all impeding, but the truth of it is, there was never any chance of it being held. It wasn’t just that the necessary Section 30 order hadn’t been obtained, which is the magical bit of paper from Westminster needed to allow it. More importantly neither the organisational infrastructure nor the necessary policy platform had been laid.

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Work still needs done on those other critical factors but with minds turning to an election next year they’ll be addressed, or so many of us SNP stalwarts hope. However, the issue of how you obtain a referendum or otherwise break free from Westminster rule remains. It needs debated within the SNP and resolved as a matter of urgency, as the membership is getting increasingly frustrated.

Mounting frustration among Yessers

I still hold to a referendum as I believe that they are the best method of addressing complex constitutional issues. Brexit has caused many, including myself, to rethink but I still believe that democratically it’s the best way. It focuses on the issue and dispenses with other issues that can complicate elections. It wasn’t the method that was to blame for Brexit but the lies that were told and the other chicanery that was allowed to go unchecked.

But that assumes that you can hold another referendum. It’s surprising to say the least that the SNP leadership hasn’t sought to test the legal waters on holding their own. Many including Joanna Cherry MP have been advocating that and a court challenge is being mounted by frustrated “Yessers”. There’s good reason to believe that it’s as possible now as it was for Strathclyde to consult on fluoridisation decades ago.

The reason assumed by many is that the current Lord Advocate doesn’t believe it’s arguable though other senior legal figures disagree. Given a referendum was a core part of the SNP manifesto in 2016 you’d have thought they’d have ensured they appointed a law officer who was at least moderately sympathetic to their cause.

Running an illegal referendum is a red herring to frighten folk. It just can’t be done. Either it needs signed off with a S30 or it needs conducted under an alternative approved method. It was simply a way of closing down debate by frightening folk with the spectre of anarchy, let alone Catalonia. Hopefully, this test case will offer some insight. But if you rule out an alternative method then you leave Johnson with a veto and that’s simply unacceptable. There’s a chance that yet another SNP victory next year would see him fold. Scotland being the final disengagement from an Empire that started unravelling a century ago with Ireland and that has seen the Union Jack lowered across the globe.

How to focus minds

But what if he doesn’t? Public opinion hasn’t mattered with Dominic Cummings and the voice of a democratically elected Scottish Government holds even less sway than his English heartlands. If he just refuses, then a Plan B is required. It can’t just be left to chance that he’ll act benignly, it’s just not in his nature.

What that Plan B should be has to be decided by the SNP who’ll be seeking the electoral mandate, but discussions should go wider as it affects the Yes movement. The best I’ve seen so far is that unless Westminster is prepared to agree to a referendum, albeit contingent on Holyrood success, then the election should be treated as the deliberative vote.

That would focus minds and allow legitimacy through an electoral mandate. It might also allow for a greater purpose for the list vote, as clamours for an Independence Party grow. That too needs discussed but the days of mantra chants are over, it’s time for a Plan B.

Kenny MacAskill is the SNP MP for East Lothian

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