Are the SNP really serious about independence? IAN SMART dares to say the unsayable


Michael Moore is a numpty. The Scottish one that is. William Hague can’t have a “personal opinion”  about British Foreign policy or Theresa May about immigration. Equally, Mr Moore, as Scottish Secretary has no business expressing personal opinions about matters under his Ministerial brief.

That’s not however why he is a numpty, or at least not the only reason.

Let’s be honest. The SNP never anticipated having a majority in the Scottish Parliament to enable them to call a referendum. Since they found themselves in the fortuitous (!) position to be able to do so they have been running full tilt away from it.

Firstly, they declare that maybe even they now might not be in favour of Scottish independence but only of “Independence lite” (whatever that is). Then they suggest the referendum might have more than one question (such as “Should Walter Smith have stayed on as Rangers manager?” for example?). Finally they announce that it was never their intention to hold a referendum immediately anyway. It is this last which is then most absurd. Their official position is that, when they didn’t have a majority in the last parliament, there should have been a referendum (held long since) but now that they do have a majority there is no rush.

Presumably Eck and his colleagues joined the SNP believing that the sooner Scotland was independent the better. Have they changed their view about that? Is it now their view that independence in 2009 would have been for the good of the nation while in 2011 the nation’s interests are best served by the continuation of the Union? If so, not only have they kept quiet about it but they have failed to explain how, if they had succeeded in 2009, they would then have, almost immediately, been campaigning to put matters back together, at least until 2014.

No, the reason that we are not having an immediate referendum is that the SNP know they would lose. That is all the more reason for Mr Moore to have kept his personal opinions to himself.

To the best of my knowledge no-one asked him for his personal opinion, or any other kind of opinion. But in blundering into this debate he has done three things: he has created the impression that he (at least) does not respect the right of the Scottish people to self-determination; he has created the impression that there might be some uncertainty as to the outcome of a referendum held on an honest question and he has simply added to the SNP’s desire to be seen as having an unstoppable momentum which could only be stopped by underhand means.

I’m reluctant therefore to give Mr Moore any further encouragement but, I suppose, you can’t unbreak the egg, so here goes, in terms hopefully even he will understand…

Whether or not there is a referendum, normal politics will go on. If there were a referendum in 2014 and the SNP lost they wouldn’t disappear and they wouldn’t stop believing in independence. Certainly they would experience a period of internal party turmoil – they might even split. But at the next Scottish Election there will be some sort of party still advocating Scottish independence as soon as possible.

Equally, even if by some as yet unforseeable circumstance, a referendum on an unambiguous question (“Do you believe Scotland should leave the United Kingdom and become a completely independent sovereign nation?”, for example), were to produce an affirmative result, Unionist parties would not go away. They would continue to fight subsequent elections seeking a mandate for the continuation of the Union, and if they won, at any point before independence was a reality, that’s what would happen because no one would have any kind of mandate for anything else.

This is not an academic point. Even die-hard independistas recognise that the dissolution of a political and economic union built up over three hundred years would not be accomplished overnight. There is much talk of the national debt but there are any number of other issues. Public sector pensions, anybody? Who has responsibility for guaranteeing the pension of the civil servant who worked all their days at St Andrew’s House but who has now retired to the Isle of Wight (or Marbella)? Division of military assets? If we don’t want any nuclear submarines, should the English nonetheless compensate us for taking “our share” off our hands? Shareholdings in the temporarily nationalised banks? Would it be OK if RBS was still owned mainly by a foreign government?

These, and literally thousands of other issues will require line by line negotiation and, with a referendum in 2014, these hypothetical negotiations would never be concluded by the next Scottish elections in 2016. And if a unionist party won that election, they would then stop. There is no more obvious example than that the SNP are not really serious about independence. An early referendum might just allow them time to conclude these negotiations before requiring a further popular mandate but, then again, they know better than anybody that an early referendum, even held at the apogee of their electoral pomp, and on a question of their choosing, would be lost by a country mile. So we should all calm down; not least Mr Moore.

There are however two other important points. The first is that a referendum held on another question is patently not a mandate for anything other than the matter referred to in the question put. Some sort of absurd “Do you think the Scottish Government should talk to the Westminster government about independence and see how they get on?” question would be a mandate only to expend a whole lot of hot air and public money.

The second is however this: sovereignty in this matter does lie with the Scottish people. Notwithstanding the terms of the statutory restrictions in the Scotland Act and (with the greatest of respect to him) the decision of Lord President Rodger in Whalley v Watson, (a decision the SNP welcomed!) that is nonetheless  the constitutional position, in so far as that is possible to determine in the context of an unwritten constitution. It formed the basis of the Claim of Right (both times!) but also the unanimous view of the Court of Session in McCormick v The Lord Advocate.

If there is a genuine popular majority for independence then we will know it when we see it. The SNP would by the have had to have won a referendum on some sort of question and then a second Scottish Parliament election where they have expressly sought endorsement for their interpretation of that result. The idea that an insistence thereafter that some sort of second referendum might yet hold the line for the union is not just constitutionally unnecessary, it is politically illusory.

And I’m still annoyed with Michael Moore for requiring me to have to write about this at all.

Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of  Scotland. He fears not the wrath of the cyber nat. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart

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21 thoughts on “‘Michael Moore is a numpty!’

  1. I regret that we didnt support a referendum in the last parliament. We could have got that out of the way, and then the Holyrood election might have been fought on who had the best plan to getting Scotland back on track, rather than independence.

    Perhaps we should bring forward a plan to parliament to have a referendum next May – then it might be the SNP who end up opposing one of their policies!

    1. ‘then the Holyrood election might have been fought on who had the best plan to getting Scotland back on track, rather than independence’

      I am not sure you can get away with this. For most of the election campaign, Labour tried to make it about UK issues. That wasn’t working, so they shifted towards screaming about independence. And accusing the SNP of not talking about independence. Meanwhile, over on planet Tavish, the Liberal Democrats were shouting very loudly ‘if you want independence, vote SNP’. The electorate did vote SNP, but then the narrative changed to ‘just because Scots voted SNP, that doesn’t mean they want independence’. The SNP fought the election on who had the best plan for Scotland, and who was likely to be the best front bench to deal with the difficulties we face. Since the election, the First Minister has been very clear about trying to use the consensus that exists across the parliament for more powers.

      Independence has become an issue of huge concern for Labour and LibDems, but that’s because you have chosen to make it so – both before and since the election.

      I am not trying to be aggressive or to make snide cybernatty-type remarks, but it seems to me that pieces like this simply illustrate the extent of (a) misunderstanding of SNP strategy and (b) denial about what happened on May 5th.

      SNP strategy is and has been clear since before 2007: win elections, demonstrate competence and then put the issue to the people. Don’t be surprised when try to stick to it.

      1. I was talking about it from a Labour point of view – I meant WE would have fought the election on what was best for scotland, instead of talking about Independence. I think most people realise that they can vote SNP and it wont mean instant independence, and our message saying that it would didnt chime with voters.

        My heart sunk every time I saw the latest leaflet to come out of John Smith House attacking the tories, or warning of independence. I wanted us to be talking about our plans for the Living wage, the ending of youth unemployment, or the national care service. I tried to make our locally produced material as positive as we could, but we were reliant on a lot of stuff produced centrally.

        My last paragraph was a little tongue-in-cheek! After all, Labour were accused (rightly in some cases) of voting against their own policies in the last session. I thought it would be interesting to see if we could get the SNP to vote against one of theirs! It would at least mean that we wont have another 3/4 years of every little thing being blown up out of all proportion and being turned into another manufactured row between Edinburgh and London to try an get a Yes vote.

  2. And I’m still annoyed with Michael Moore for requiring me to have to write about this at all.

    You shouldn’t have wasted your and my time reading this rant then!

  3. found the comment “And if a unionist party won that election, they would then stop.” very interesting, are you saying that even if the result of the referendum was for independence it would be ignored by an incoming unionist party, sorry I may of misunderstood your point.

    1. Well, apparently the opposite is true. If the referendum says No in 2014/5, then a new SNP Government in 2016 would want to put us all through it again.

      1. Not true, Alex Salmond has made it very clear that if this referendum fails to win independence that there will not be another chance for a generation.

        1. Not what 2 of your MSPs have said to me personally. I’d like to think it would be dropped, but I doubt it, as the SNP is all about independence – if they’re not fighting for it, what are they for?

        2. The point is not what Alex Salmond says but what the Scottish people vote for. If any party wins a subsequent election on having another referendum then that should happen, just as if any party wins an election, after a yes vote, proposing to halt the whole process then, equally, that’s what should also happen. The expression of sovereignty is not a snapshot, it is a continuous process. That’s my whole point.

          1. So if after a referendum on independence where the electorate voted for it, the process would have to be complete before the next election as an incoming unionist party would ignore the result of the referendum and halt the process?

            I assume that labour will stress this point during the referendum campaign and the following Scottish parliamentary elections where I imagine it would form a key part of your manifesto.

          2. I think Ian’s point, David is that just as the SNP now have a mandate for an independence referendum, so would a new Government have such a mandate if it won with a policy of stopping the process.

            You cant have it both ways.

  4. Interesting piece this, there can be little debate over the SNP now being in uncharted waters having won a historic majority in the Scottish election which operates an electoral system designed to stop one party winning majority and thus the plans for spelling out clearly what is meant by Independence need time to be fully formulated. As for all the attacks on the SNP regarding the timing of a referendum the argument is at best redundant for Labour as the First Minister stated during the end of the campaign the referendum would be in the 2nd half of the parliament. Also if SNP have U-turned, which they haven’t, what about the Labour party bar a few hours when Wendy strayed off reservation the line from Labour on and Indie ref was always been over our dead bodies. That said this blatant opportunism is most unbecoming, it failed at the election with council tax and student fee policy switches so why carry on with it now?

    The Referendum isn’t coming till at least 2014 (possibly 2015) why don’t Labour take 12 months and define what they now stand for in Scotland. Top of this list is redefining what devolution means to the Labour party, why you where in favour of it in the first place and how it can be used as a vehicle to take Scotland to Where Scottish Labour want to see it. This require people within Scottish Labour to be bold and may not always match the needs of party at the UK level, most notably on the political spectrum and issue of fiscal autonomy. On this First Labour need to move to the left and fight hard to retake this ground from the SNP. Given Ed’s speech about the worthy and unworthy poor this may well mark a departure from Labour UK and while this may make it harder to do it helps demonstrate Labour is listening to Scotland and not some think tanks based in London. As for the Latter after 4 or 5 years of this Tory Lead government the Union is going to be even harder to defend and show in a positive light than it is now that being the case full fiscal autonomy may be your best bet to stop independence. Also while a vote for the SNP may well not be a vote independence it clearly a vote to at least to extend the powers of Scotland within UK that said it appears to me FFA if it alone were put to a plebiscite tomorrow it would win at a canter, and something tells me in 3/4 years Labour will be desperate for a win

    1. I think its a valid comment to say that the SNP were in favour of a quick referendum in 2008/9, but then decided against putting it to the parliament, and now want to wait 3 or 4 years – despite having already appointed a campaign manager.

      Your second paragraph is actually very good advice, that I think most Labour members would agree with. You’re right that Scottish Labour needs to think about what is best for Scotland, and this may not agree with what the rest of the party is doing. Some form of seperation, whereby the Scottish party sits in Westminster with the Uk party (rather like the Labour & Co-Op MPs?) supporting the Labour party whilst having a different (more radical?) agenda for Scotland could work.

      1. I don’t understabd why Labour peeps seem to be so annoyed that the SNP has already appointed a campaign manager for the independence referendum campaign.

        You should appreciate that we are giving you fair notice.

        Let’s face it, Labour are all over the place right now. You have no leader and no position or policy on the independence campaign yet.

        There would actually be a strong argument for the SNP calling a referendum quickly to exploit this situation. That would leave you in the position of either having to get into bed with the Tories as part of the black-hearted Grand Unionist Alliance or basically sitting the campaign out.

        But we are not doing that, we are sticking to the timetable that we laid out in the campaign. We are giving you guys every chance to get yourselves together and challenge us instead of steamrollering over you. It’s dashed sporting of us when you come to think of it.

  5. “I think its a valid comment to say that the SNP were in favour of a quick referendum in 2008/9”

    I’m pretty certain the 2007 manifesto/campaign specified a planned referendum in November 2010.

    1. I remember Alex Salmond being interviewed on TV in 2009 saying that we’ll have a referndum in 12 months. Thats “the SNP were in favour of a quick referendum in 2008/9”.

      Plus, I cant see why we need to wait – after all presumably all the ground work was done by the civil servants last time?

      1. Your memory is really bad you know. Was this perhaps the same interview where he said that minimum pricing was a magic bullet?

        The SNP manifesto stated quite clearly that an SNP Government would publish a White Paper, encompassing a Bill as part of preparations for offering Scots the opportunity to decide on independence in a referendum, with a likely date of 2010.

        I suspect that the interview you recall took place around the publication of said White Paper in November 2009. Which is Alex mentioned a 12 month timetable would have indicated a referemdum date of November 2010.

        Therefore it cannot possibly be valid for you to claim that the SNP were in favour of a quick referendum in 2008/9.

        1. My memory is really good though. In the run-up to the 2007 election the form of words used was “we’ll legislate for a referendum on independence within 100 days of coming to power”.

          When challenged they said…”not a referendunmm within 100 days!!! Good Lord, whatever made you think that. We weren’t being deliberately ambiguous…notatall. Our activists who believe that are sadly mistaken… nonononono.”

          Then they said “legislation within a 100 days for a referendum”.

          And then the 2007 manifesto said “a refreendunm in 2010″.

          And then they delivered none of the above…

          Now they say ” a referendum on the anniversary of Bannockburn …FREEDUM”.

          Scotland free in 2933!

        2. If, in 2009, they had everything ready to go for a referendum in 12 months time (even if they then stopped all work on it), they surely just need to pick up where they left off, and hey presto – referendum next May.

          Or is the real reason that they feel they might loose it? And that a delay will give more time to manufacture battles with “London”.

  6. “Would it be OK if RBS was still owned mainly by a foreign government?”

    This is a moot point, as are the others you raise. RBS is not, nor ever has been, Scotland’s national bank. It is a private company operating as a trading bank – So who owns it, or where it is based, is neither here nor there.

    On the subject of Michael Moore: I agree with you entirely.

  7. dont think we should be having nationally important questions such as

    “Should Walter Smith have stayed on as Rangers manager?

    on the same ballot paper alongside such minor concerns like

    “Do you believe Scotland should leave the United Kingdom and become a completely independent sovereign nation?”

    as in everything one must get ones priority’s in the proper order

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