“Like a drug, the machine is useful, dangerous and habit-forming. The oftener one surrenders to it the tighter its grip becomes.”
Read Part TWO here
It is early 2021 and almost all is well in Sturgeon’s world. She basks in adulation both at home and abroad. But there is the troubling matter of independence to attend to. Since she became leader Sturgeon has spent much of her energy dampening down independence expectations until the pre-election march to the top of the hill.
Since 2016 an independence referendum has been promised and mandated. Ian Blackford, the SNP Westminster leader, has repeatedly assured us and Westminster that ‘Scotland would not be dragged out of the EU against our will’, until we were. Instead of providing Scotland with the choice as promised, Sturgeon in a speech at the end of January 2020 on Brexit day had surrendered completely and told Scotland and the world that she would do absolutely nothing about ‘Scotland being dragged out of the EU. In many ways Sturgeon was saved by the COVID pandemic a matter of weeks later, which pushed Sturgeon’s capitulation out of the minds of many independence supporters.
Sturgeon is insisting on the section 30 route to independence – this refers to section 30 of the Scotland Act. A section 30 order passed by the Westminster parliament would transfer powers over the constitution temporarily to Holyrood, enabling Holyrood to hold an independence referendum.
It is believed by some that Holyrood may already have the power to call a referendum and does not need a section 30 order. There is no legal certainty, so independence campaigner Martin Keatings has crowdfunded a legal case that would settle this question. Keatings has raised over a quarter of a million pounds to bring the case and the subsequent appeal.
Sturgeon does not want legal certainty. If the judges decide Holyrood does not have the power to call an independence referendum, then Sturgeon will have to pursue a different route, which would likely have a greater chance of success. Sturgeon instructs her government lawyers under the then Lord Advocate James Wolfe to intervene in the case. This intervention increases the cost of the case and this cost is borne by ordinary supporters of independence.
Now Keatings is fighting both the Westminster Government and the Scottish Government. The Scottish government sides with the Westminster government and argues that Martin Keatings, as he is not an elected politician, has no standing to bring this case. That is the Scottish Government telling the Scottish people that they have no right to ask this question. A question that is integral to Scotland’s sovereignty. The Keating case is eventually lost after a brave fight, and Scots are no closer to having legal certainty on whether Holyrood has the right to hold a referendum.
MP Angus McNeil and Councillor Chris McEleny have for some time been suggesting an independence plan B. Plan B is to use the forthcoming Holyrood election as a plebiscite. Pro-independence parties will put in their manifestos a commitment to independence and if a majority of pro-independence MSPs are elected to Holyrood this would be a mandate to open independence negotiations with Westminster.
This plebiscite plan is backed by Joanna Cherry and was submitted to the SNP Conference in November 2020. In response, Sturgeon had conceded a fairly toothless National Assembly this was to avoid questions on independence strategy being raised at the SNP National Conference. The National Assembly is ostensibly to discuss the SNP strategy to gain independence.
For well over a year, Sturgeon has been battling to keep a plebiscite off the Party’s Conference agenda. For a simple reason: there is every chance that a plebiscite would be won by the pro-independence camp. This would mean confrontation with Westminster. And Sturgeon is unwilling or unable to take on that fight.
The night before the National Assembly Michael Russell the recently elected SNP President produces an 11-point plan for an independence referendum. The plan is not unveiled at the Assembly, but it is reported in the National newspaper as a fait accompli. The 11-point plan, in summary, is to ask the Westminster government for a section 30 order and, if the Westminster government refuses, despite that refusal legislate for an independence referendum. The National Assembly is online and tightly controlled. No votes are taken on any plan for independence.
Michael Russell’s plan demonstrates why the failure of the Keatings case is such a blow to any plan for independence. We must start from the assumption is that the Westminster government will refuse to grant a section 30 order. So, Holyrood will legislate for a referendum, but they will run into a problem: any bill passed by Holyrood can be challenged before it becomes law as being outwith Holyrood competency.
The Keatings case was prevented from supplying the answer regarding Holyrood competency. So, the Holyrood referendum legislation will almost certainly be followed by a lengthy court case. And as we should all well know, power devolved is power retained and the Westminster parliament can legislate to further constrain Holyrood powers at any point during that case. To be honest the 11-point plan is a bit of a nonstarter, but it is the only plan that Sturgeon will accept.
Sturgeon has total control of the SNP Holyrood manifesto 2021 and has successfully navigated out of consideration any alternative routes to independence. The 11-point plan will be incorporated into the manifesto later that year with a twist: Sturgeon will only ask the Westminster government for a section 30 order after the effects of the COVID pandemic have passed and it is safe to do so. This is the familiar ‘now is not the time’ from Sturgeon with the added implication that an independence referendum, and perhaps also independence, is dangerous.
But there is another problem brewing for Sturgeon. Back in early 2017 Sturgeon had announced an independence referendum in either autumn 2018 or spring 2019. This announcement was accompanied by a fundraising drive which promised money raised would be placed in a ring-fenced fund and used in the future referendum campaign.
The cash was given by independence supporters of all parties and none. The drive raised over 600 thousand pounds for this ring-fenced fund. Now four years later, questions are starting to be asked about the location of the money as it does not show up in the SNP accounts. Stuart Campbell of Wings over Scotland was first to raise the issue back in the autumn, and Colin Beattie the then SNP Treasurer claimed the cash was ‘woven through’ the accounts. It now appears the cash is both ‘spent’ and ‘available when needed’. Independence supporters who donated and ask for their donation back are being refunded. Douglas Chapman is the new SNP Treasurer elected as one of the ‘good guys’ and it is his job to get answers.
With independence kicked into the long, long grass Sturgeon only has a few worries to take care of. Firstly, she needs to come up with an explanation for spending the ring-fenced cash, and secondly, she has to ensure that she finishes the job of burying Alex Salmond.
Will she succeed? And what of the ‘good guys’? Find out in Part 4.
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