Scottish independence: Why the Scottish Parliament should be given the power to call second referendum – Alastair Stewart

A “once-in-a-generation opportunity” was the rallying cry for independence in 2014. “Neverendum” is now the buzzword for that same generation.

After only seven years, that pledge is an embarrassment for Yes campaigners.

Independence hangs over every policy portfolio. If the Scottish government does well, it's nothing compared to what Scotland can do when unshackled. If it fails, well – that's the Union for you.

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Predictably, Nicola Sturgeon's Programme for Government declared that a democratic mandate for Scotland to determine "our own future” is “beyond question”. This statement is obvious. The SNP has consistently won unequivocal victories at Scottish, UK, local council and EU elections. In 2021, 2019, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2012, 2011, and 2009. They've been in power since 2007. The 2014 independence referendum was their only real setback.

What we have is a government desperate to keep the party machine well-oiled and motivated. It is entirely stuck by the fact that, whatever they promise, they need Westminster to consent. Delivering Indyref2 by 2023 is just another moveable goalpost.

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The current situation cannot continue. Scots of all political stripes should unite and demand a permanent transfer of referendum powers to the Scottish Parliament. Years of political mudslinging and threats would be resolved and it would finally restore some focused governance.

The benefits of such a mechanism would be plethoric. Firstly, opposition parties could demand and call the bluff of any government that made buck-passing to Westminster a policy. The political failures of the SNP, now joined to the hip of the Scottish Greens, could not be dismissed as the fault of “the Tories” or “Westminster”.

The SNP government is getting away with impersonating Del Boy, like professional imitator Steve Rooney, making endless promises about good times to come that never actually arrive (Picture: John Nguyen/PA)The SNP government is getting away with impersonating Del Boy, like professional imitator Steve Rooney, making endless promises about good times to come that never actually arrive (Picture: John Nguyen/PA)
The SNP government is getting away with impersonating Del Boy, like professional imitator Steve Rooney, making endless promises about good times to come that never actually arrive (Picture: John Nguyen/PA)

Equally, if something genuinely intolerable is being inflicted by Westminster/Number 10 on Scotland, the country would have a formal recourse. Brexit was and is a disaster with which the country has been left with no mechanism to resist.

Secondly, the permanent transfer would not be an unprecedented shake-up. Scotland has had a referendum before and is unique in the UK for having reduced the voting age to 16. Some of the best lessons of pandemic technology, like QR codes and apps, could be made to function for direct democracy.

Thirdly, it would resolve the groundhog day of Scottish political life. Scotland would be a regularly consenting part of the UK, keeping devolved politics focused and governments answerable for their own actions and vision.

Finally, it opens the door to the particulars of independence as a question. As Brexit has demonstrated, a binary question cannot cover the bigger predicaments and consequences. Scotland could have multi-question, multi-part referendums as required and with a frequency befitting the complexity of the choices ahead.

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All of this is predicated on a single uncomfortable truth. Scottish independence is an issue that will never disappear as long as the SNP continue to be resoundingly returned at elections.

The threat of a referendum has become part of Scottish political culture. It is the utter stalemate of getting to the stage of holding one which has to change.

In coalition with the Greens, the SNP brings together a pro-indy majority of 71 to 57 MSPs. Beyond the rhetoric, there is a minimal effort made to demand a referendum from Westminster.

But when we're in year 14 of a government, when we've already had a conclusive referendum, and when the issue still does not go away, we need to think creatively.

Scotland needs to give its First Minister the same prerogative once enjoyed by Prime Ministers to call elections and propose referendums (curtailed by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011).

The Scottish Parliament can already dissolve if at least two-thirds of the members vote in favour. A similar two-thirds threshold could be considered to endorse motions for a referendum. A committee could be established to advise on such decisions.

Amendments to the Scotland Act 1998 have already been made devolving further powers to Holyrood (the Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016, respectively). We would likely need another. Amending and codifying a permanent transfer would just be another devolved power. Gone would be the triangulations of will they, won't they, shouldn't they get a Section 30 Order from Westminster.

UK leaders who are worried that the move would create a constitutional roulette wheel should take comfort that referendums are not legally binding. This solution might move past the binary nature of the debate and actually help to answer substantive questions lingering for years.

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We have successive Scottish governments returned whose entire reason for being is not being respected. If nothing else, devolved referendum powers would force SNP/Green administrations to act on the polling and election results they already claim are the basis for Indyref2.

Such a system could also be politically advantageous to Opposition parties. The most astonishing act of political manoeuvring would be for the unionist parties to call for a referendum devolution. It is a flanking tactic that Douglas Ross, Anas Sarwar and Alex Cole-Hamilton may wish to consider.

The rebuttal to this is predictable. Yes campaigners will say it's a concession that Scotland is on the road to independence. No campaigners will say it legitimises constitutional gambling.

The counterpoint is powerful in its simplicity: that may be, but the issue has never gone away, anyway – so let's settle it. How does next Monday work for you and the nation?

If there's a common cause in this proposition, it's this: Yes campaigners get a guarantee to determine Scotland's future, and unionists can forever call the bluff of scaremongering and buck-passing.

If absolutely nothing else, we would condemn to history this ad nauseam Del Boy government: this time, next year, we'll have a referendum! Bring in a system to just do it quickly.

Scotland could, at last, get back to politics.

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