Lesley Riddoch: Nicola Sturgeon’s emphasis on democratic process is consistent

AUOB March for Independence'' Picture: Neil Hanna
AUOB March for Independence'' Picture: Neil Hanna
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Nicola Sturgeon says Scots could hold another referendum to reverse independence, if the country changes its mind after voting Yes next time. Is that an own goal, a cunning plan or a statement of the blindingly obvious?

The First Minister was speaking in Berlin last week where she collected a media prize as the “voice of reason” on Brexit. She was asked by a Czech reporter: “If the Scottish people decide for independence, could there be [another] referendum in a few years to decide against independence?

Nicola Sturgeon replied: “Democracy’s not conditional. It’s not for politicians to decide the limits. It’s up to people to decide the future they want. But no country, to my knowledge, that has become independent from the UK… [has] decided to change their minds and go back the way, and I don’t think it is likely that Scotland would do that either.”

Quite. Indeed, the First Minister could have gone further. No country that’s become independent anywhere in the world, has gone back to the “mother ship”, cap in hand, pleading for readmission – partly because Mother Ships also move on.

So, the prospect of a post-independence wobble here is unlikely, but arises from Scotland’s unique status as the only country to hold an independence referendum yet fail to jump ship. That result and its contested aftermath make it easier to suggest Scots are uniquely incapable of making a big constitutional decision and sticking with it.

But devolution is irretrievably in with the bricks, despite needing two referendums to get over the line. And by the time Scotland becomes independent, rUK may very well be grappling with the reality of Brexit, a battered currency, civil unrest over food shortages and problems with medical supplies. Of course, Britain’s Brexit path may be less rocky than predicted and Scotland’s route to independence more difficult. But that’s the point. There are unknowns now on both sides of the equation.

So maybe that’s why Nicola Sturgeon was prepared to indulge not smack down or body-swerve the difficult but also fairly irrelevant press conference question about indyref3. Once out of the UK, an independent Scotland will be focused and busy – re-joining the EU, establishing a currency, setting up the institutions of a new state, and making decisions about everything from a national anthem to new energy providers and a head of state using citizens’ assemblies and perhaps specific referenda, as never before in the UK. Overturning such a process looks difficult and very unlikely.

Nonetheless, the SNP leader’s remarks have infuriated many unionists who raise the prospect of a never-ending cycle of contradictory referendums and accuse Nicola Sturgeon of luring swithering voters with the idea that a Yes vote is easily reversed – like a longer, constitutional version of the 14-day cooling off period.

Some suggest that if she won Indyref2, Nicola Sturgeon would immediately change the rules so a two-thirds majority would be needed to reverse it. Others insist this unexpected turn in the independence debate was crafted simply to distract from rows over hospitals and the Named Person scheme.

Perhaps though, this furious response from opponents of independence is a back-handed compliment – angry recognition that the First Minister’s refusal to bind the hands of future voters probably appeals to a Scottish electorate fairly keen on democratic practice and legal process and fairly scunnered with the cheerful disregard for popular sovereignty shown by most unionist parties.

Ms Sturgeon’s emphasis on democratic process is consistent, whether it’s a People’s Vote on Brexit or the need for a specific referendum majority – not just an election mandate – to begin negotiations for independence with London. Above all, the First Minister’s willingness to countenance another referendum that might reverse the crowning achievement of her life’s work, puts clear blue water between herself and Jo Swinson who will simply revoke Article 50 without a referendum, in the unlikely event that she wins power in the next general election. Since the SNP and Lib Dems may soon be fighting it out for Scottish Remain votes, Nicola Sturgeon’s “old fashioned” commitment to democracy at all costs and at any political price, may yet pay dividends.

And the First Minister’s talk of indyref3 has another simple merit for independence supporters. By focusing public attention on what might happen after the next referendum, she’s made a legally binding indyref2 and a Yes victory sound imminent and inevitable.

There are also downsides.

Opening up the possibility of another referendum after independence invites confusion with the quite separate argument for a confirmatory vote on the deal extracted from London. As far as I understand it, the First Minister is definitely not arguing for that. Nor is she inviting debate on other proposals that would constrain indyref2 by imposing a two-thirds majority, a turnout threshold or the like.

The SNP backs the Venice Commission, a group of constitutional experts which advises the Council of Europe. It opposes the use of anything but a simple majority for important constitutional votes and asks how democracy would be served if a 57 per cent vote was declared null and void, because it had failed to reach a higher threshold. In such a situation, would the status quo really feel like a “settled will”?

The Brexit referendum has of course demonstrated the difficulty of victory by a very narrow margin. But the 1979 Scottish home rule referendum also demonstrated the difficulty of victory by imposed and arbitrary thresholds.

What’s needed to carry the day is the active involvement of folk from every part of society – especially those on the vanquished side, something the Scottish Government has accepted far more easily than either recent UK Prime Minister.

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie says SNP supporters will go bananas when they hear the First Minister is lining up Indyref3 as well as Indyref2.

I doubt it.

There’s been little response so far, even from established critics of the SNP leader.

Partly that’s down to discipline. But mostly that’s because independence obviously allows Scots to consider a new form of loose union with the rUK, membership of the Nordic Council, or maybe the halfway house of EFTA in preference to the EU.

Such freedom may look scary after centuries of constraint. But it’s a fear mature independent countries hug with relish.