Scottish independence: 'De-facto' referendum is 'last ditch' attempt for independence with democracy in UK on the line, say Green leaders

Fighting the next general election as a ‘de-facto’ referendum is a “last ditch” attempt to secure independence, the leaders of the Scottish Greens have said.

Victory for pro-independence parties in such a vote should also force the future prime minister to negotiate the terms of independence for Scotland or “the UK is no longer a democracy”, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater have stressed.

The co-leaders of the Scottish Greens spoke to The Scotsman on the same afternoon as the passage of the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill in Holyrood – a piece of legislation that has threatened to tear apart their Government partners, the SNP.

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In a wide-ranging interview, the two leaders accused the Scottish Conservatives of having the “political objective” of undermining and disrupting the Scottish Parliament, and said opponents to the GRR Bill would be forced to apologise in the future for the position taken during the debate.

Ms Slater, who is the minister for green skills, circular economy and biodiversity, also committed to the embattled deposit return scheme launching in August 2023, while Mr Harvie, minister for zero carbon buildings, active travel and tenant’s rights, suggested the emergency rent freeze Bill could delay the planning housing Bill.

Despite a successful year for the Scottish Greens with the GRR Bill completing a key red line in the Bute House Agreement with the SNP, the rent freeze Bill being driven by Green MSPs, and a renewed focus on climate change, there is a feeling strategy on independence is ultimately controlled by the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon.

Both leaders dispute this, claiming their party has not been bounced into supporting a ‘de facto’ referendum, despite Government policy set to be agreed at the SNP’s ‘special conference’ in March.

A victory in such a ‘de-facto’ vote, defined as more than 50 per cent of the popular vote for pro-independence parties, would be a mandate for independence negotiations, Mr Harvie says.

Scottish Greens co-leaders Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie outside Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, during their party's Autumn conference in 2021.

The possibility of it being used as yet another demand for a referendum is rejected, outright.

"If we are left with a de-facto referendum as the only option, that is in place of the referendum that we ought to have, that we deserve to have, that we have a right to have,” the veteran Green MSP said. "It’s not about triggering another one, it’s about answering the question.”

Despite this, there is an admission such a strategy is “the last-ditch” approach, with the UK’s claim to be a democracy fundamentally under question.

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"The will of the people of Scotland needs to be asserted democratically", Mr Harvie said, claiming a referendum was the “preferred way of doing that”. He added, however, that “if an election is the only way of doing that, then that’s the last ditch”.

Mr Harvie said: "If that’s the only option they leave us and we take through that process and they ignore the result, then the UK is no longer a democracy."

For Ms Slater, the ball is firmly in Westminster’s court, accusing unionist parties in London of “cowardice” and demanding they set out a democratic route to independence .

She said: “They have to provide that framework for us, that is in their court. To me it’s not a point of principle if they are not doing it, it’s a matter of cowardice.”

In a challenge to pro-Union parties, she added: "They don’t want to talk about the Union. They know we have a better story to tell and so they do the only thing they can, which is block the referendum.

"They should have the courage of their convictions. If they think the Union is so great, they should come up and debate with us on it.”

Both leaders agree while the move from Labour to address the constitutional imbalance is welcome, there is no sense there is a “credible proposition on the table”, arguing that independence is that solution.

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Mr Harvie said one flaw of the plans is there is no ‘locking’ mechanism within the proposals from former prime minister, Gordon Brown, that wouldn’t allow a “future hostile government like the UK has at the moment” to “undo that work”.

The Greens co-leader said: “They’re also not answering the question ‘how are you going to establish a mandate for making those changes?’ If you only have a handful of MPs, or double figures of MPs in Scotland, that is still nowhere near a mandate from the people of Scotland for imposing a constitutional change.

"They don’t seem willing to put the question of independence to a referendum, so how exactly do they intend to establish the mandate if they’re saying people can vote in such huge numbers in favour of a referendum on independence, but that doesn’t give you a mandate, but they are going to conjure one from somewhere?"

For Ms Slater, Labour appears to be approaching the next general election as a de-facto referendum as well, but on their constitutional reforms while rejecting the possibility for the independence question to be tested at the same time.

“Is that them using the general election as a de-facto referendum, because they are saying if you vote for us in the general election you will get a new constitutional settlement?” she questioned. “I don’t think there is any appetite in England to put in place new parliaments, new layers of government, there never has been.”

Despite struggles from other Green parties in government, particularly the Green Party of Ireland, which has suffered from a coalition, the Scottish Greens continue to poll well. The latest Savanta poll for The Scotsman has the party on 13 per cent, five points above their 2021 result.

The partnership has also resulted in some key policy victories such as the emergency rent freeze and additional money for climate initiatives.

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For Ms Slater, the time in Government has allowed the Greens to establish “legacy items” for the party and Scotland, with highlights including the soon-to-be-established new national park, a cap on incinerators, and ensuring Government money goes to organisations who pay the living wage.

"These are legacy items,” she said. “These are things that will be with us. National parks are enduring things, they will be around for decades, maybe centuries. There will be a legacy from what we are creating here that is positive.”

Mr Harvie, who first entered Parliament as one of six Scottish Green MSPs in 2003, said he had enjoyed watching the party mature into government.

"Being the Scottish Green party is no longer about saying what we wish for, it’s delivering stuff,” he said. “Sometimes that’s difficult because you can’t just demand the impossible, you have to deliver what you can and push the boundaries and make new things possible, but that’s an exciting growth to be in.”

There is more to come too, with the Deposit Return Bill committed to launch in August, the circular economy Bill, the heat in buildings’ improvements and next year’s housing Bill. There is a suggestion the rent freeze may delay the introduction of the Bill, but a “bridging mechanism” could be put in place to ensure rents do not skyrocket between the end of the freeze and planned introduction of rent controls.

On GRR, which passed overwhelmingly following months of heated debate and years of consultation, Mr Harvie said the approach during the debate on the Bill showed the Scottish Conservatives were working to undermine and disrupt Parliament as a “political objective”. He accused them of being “insecure” due to the comparisons between a “competent” Holyrood and the “chaos” in Westminster.

He said: “I suspect that it may not happen immediately, but I suspect before very long people, like the Conservatives, will be having to do what they’ve done on stuff like equal age of consent, or section 28 repeal, which is eventually having to apologise for having got this wrong.

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"So much of it feels like a repeat of those kind of debates and I suspect that Scotland will relatively soon recognise that the change that’s already happened in so many other countries will happen just as manageably here, and a few people’s lives will get better.”

Want to hear more from The Scotsman's politics team? Check out the latest episode of our political podcast, The Steamie.

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