I have already seen some of the response on social media to the Sunday Herald article claiming that the issue of a second independence referendum will not be addressed in the SNP’s manifesto for the coming Holyrood elections. Sad to say, much of it is as shallow as any knee-jerk reaction will tend to be. If only people would ask the pertinent questions!
The first question should always concern the credibility of the story. The mildest criticism of journalistic standards is usually enough to ensure that a comment such as this is censored, but readers surely cannot have failed to notice for themselves the lack of any authoritative source for the story. There is no SNP statement announcing that the party’s manifesto will not contain a commitment to a second independence referendum. Although the Facebook fulminations and Twitter tantrums suggest some believe that Nicola Sturgeon herself was being directly quoted, the reality is that there is no named source at all.
In itself, that would be sufficient only to cast a shadow of doubt over the claim trumpeted in the headline. But that shadow is deepened by the fact that the article is also strangely contradictory. Having asserted that there will be no commitment to a second referendum, Tom Gordon then goes on to say that the manifesto will acknowledge the possibility of a referendum; state that this is a matter to be determined by the people of Scotland; and set out some of the circumstances which might trigger another referendum. The pertinent question in this instance asks how all of this differs from the kind of formal commitment that we are entitled to expect.
What could the SNP manifesto possibly say on the subject of a second referendum that isn’t covered by what Mr Gordon assures us the document will say?
The headline is only justified if “commitment to second independence referendum” is defined as the announcement of a date on which it is to be held. And that was never going to happen. Is anybody daft enough to imagine that it could? The knee-jerk brigade obviously don’t realise it, but this article is actually telling us that the SNP manifesto will say precisely what any reasonable person would expect. It will say as much as it is possible for the party to say on the matter of a second referendum at this time. Why would it say more?
As Tom Gordon rightly acknowledges, the purpose is to keep options open. Options are arguably the most valuable commodity in politics. Why would Nicola Sturgeon discard hers?
There are other questions to be asked. We might, for example, ask if Jim Sillars is correct to state that “there would be no mandate for a second referendum”. If the manifesto says what is being predicted then he is clearly wrong. The form of words being heavily hinted at distils down to a totally explicit declaration that there will be a referendum if an SNP administration considers (a) that there is sufficient demand; and (b) that circumstances are propitious. Voting for the SNP implies consent to having Nicola Sturgeon use her judgement as to whether and when a second referendum should be held. It’s called representative democracy.
Put it it this way! Will anybody who is fervently opposed to a second referendum be assured by this form of words that there will not be one?
Next question! Will David Cameron try to block a second referendum? Professor Curtice assumes that he will. But is it so certain? Is it not the case that, apart from the panic-inducing closeness of the 2014 result, all the factors which forced him to concede to Alex Salmond’s demands are still relevant. Let’s be clear about one thing. The British establishment only went along with the independence referendum because they calculated that not doing so would be worse. They knew that Salmond would go ahead with a “consultative” referendum anyway. They knew that the result would be a clear win for the pro-independence side. They knew that, regardless of the legalities and technicalities, that referendum would be effectively binding. At the very least, it would have forced an embarrassing climb-down on the issue of a Section 30 order, followed by a “proper” referendum in circumstances that would be much more favourable to the Yes side.
All of this would still matter. Last time, these considerations were, as Professor Curtice says, outweighed by confidence that the unionists would win. But take that factor away and what you are left with is some very uncomfortable political choices which all lead to the same outcome – independence.
There are many more questions we might ask. We might, for example, scrutinise the claim of “53:47 support for the Union”. Is that really support for the status quo? Just how solid is that support?
Or we might interrogate the notion that neither side of the constitutional divide has confidence that it can prevail. In the big world outside the bubble of journalists’ cosy consensus, the very widely held view – even among many unionists – is that independence is inevitable. That it is only a matter of time. A view supported fact that the British parties are already fighting the next referendum campaign, having transitioned seamlessly from Project Fear 1 to its successor.
But the most pressing question is not for the SNP, but for the British parties. We know, as a matter of absolute certainty, that the SNP will respect demands from the people of Scotland for another referendum. Will the British parties show similar respect. They didn’t before. They fought tooth and nail to prevent the first independence referendum despite clear public support for one. So we are entitled to demand an answer from them now.
Will the leaders of the British parties in Scotland, and all those parties’ candidates in the May 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, undertake to respect the will of the people? Will they affirm Scotland’s right of self-determination and acknowledge that the people of Scotland have the democratic right to require a referendum on the question of Scotland’s constitutional status?