It’s very noticeable that nobody – that’s nobody – seriously makes the case for settling the “independence” discussion by means of a referendum. Our voting system is designed to elect named, accountable people for office for a fixed term. It is not designed to vote for an idea. There is no way to render all, or part, or any interpretation of the vote on the idea as invalid in the (almost certain) event that voting and campaigning regulations have been broken and undeliverable promises made. “Independence means independence” – yes, but Brexit means Brexit, just as lunch means lunch. If we learned nothing else from the Brexit imbroglio, we learned that a referendum doesn’t settle the matter – nothing was really agreed.
There’s a useful case in point coming up – the centenary of the plebiscite in Leith on the proposed amalgamation with Edinburgh – the people of Leith voted 5:1 against, but it went ahead. Past grievances against Edinburgh (many and genuine) and more recent municipal glories (many and genuine) were no basis for strategic planning.
BUT, and this is important, the genuinely strong identity and social cohesion of the town, engendered by this distinctive history, needed to be protected and used as an asset. THAT’s what people were voting on.
Leith didn’t have a good century from 1920. But you can’t pin the blame for that on amalgamation. There was a depression, another war, and many industrial inner city areas – the Gorbals, for example – had hard times as the economic tide went out and technology developed. It’s true that Edinburgh didn’t regard the strong Leith identity as an asset – quite the reverse, I would say – but that was the way everywhere.
We have a representative democracy (pointing out the flaws in it, of course there are flaws, doesn’t make the case for a referendum – read on) in which our representatives represent us and that is pooled with wider considerations. Capt Wedgewood Benn represented Leith in Westminster brilliantly in 1920, saying Leith was unique. It probably was. And all that had to go into the wider considerations. That’s representative democracy for you.
I’m not aware that anyone seriously argues that Leith should have remained municipally independent in 1920 and that Leith would have been better served.
Which brings us to the falseness of maintaining that direct democracy in a popular vote on a current issue on a day has to decide a complex issue with serious long-term implications. Reducing it to an over-simplified binary YES/NO, or IN/OUT does not discern the genuine concerns behind the question. The binary 1920 Leith plebiscite masked the complexities and realities of the time. The 5:1 vote should certainly have been regarded as an expression of community identity and cohesion that required and demanded respect. Transpose that into the Brexit referendum and the IndyRef of 2014.
The SNP can’t afford to lose another IndyRef. I say it can’t afford to win one either. The reality of the economic hit, the pain of a hard border, all of which is likely to be denied in the campaign, will cause much bitterness and resentment. Does it really want to be the party that brings such division to Scotland?
My NO vote in 2014 was not a vote for the status quo in the UK. There isn’t a devolutionary settlement that works – see how the piecemeal devolved arrangements in Greater Manchester are dysfunctional. We need a British Constitutional Convention, along the lines of the Scottish equivalent in the 1990s which paved the way for Holyrood in 1999. The SNP should be putting its shoulder to that wheel, it has much to offer. Brexit is greatly to be deplored. Separation is not the answer. In the EU requires a hard border. Not in the EU asks the question: why did we separate from our immediate neighbour and by far our biggest trading partner ?
I have raised two separate but related issues here: use of a referendum and separation from rUK. My first problem is with the referendum. There can be no objection to the SNP putting their intention to declare UDI from Holyrood into their manifesto for the 2021 elections. That’s democracy in action, and the consequences will be played out in the courts and the parliaments, our established institutions. It will also give us the welcome sight of politicians arguing their case and making themselves responsible. Calling a referendum is them ducking it, calling it “a voice of the people”, manipulated by unaccountable influences. That’s not good enough.