On Independence: a Comparative Perspective

That’s right, friend. This is an article about independence strategy, and plans A and B, and mutually agreed referenda and UDIs. Just like the argument you had on twitter earlier this morning and every single day of your far too online life since 2017.

It is probably fair to say that strategically, the independence movement has been at something of a crossroads since December 2019, or indeed even earlier. From the moment the First Minister formally requested a section 30 order for a second independence referendum in light of Brexit, and from the moment that order was quietly ignored by Westminster, we sailed into uncharted constitutional waters.

You won’t have noticed it, because any confrontation between the Scottish Government and the UK Government on this issue has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, but we are actually living in the first period of the Union in a very long time when the UK state can be said to be actively ignoring the constitutional desires of most residents of Scotland: poll after poll demonstrates slim majorities in favour of both independence and a referendum, while Boris sweats nervously and pretends he never got Nicola’s letter.

It is therefore understandable that many in the SNP and elsewhere in the independence movement are getting impatient with the leadership strategy of seeking a mutually agreed referendum with Westminster. This situation, in a word, is difficult, given that Westminster does not wish to give us one, and that appears unlikely to change after May.

The suggestions mooted in the party and the movement for alternative plans of action, all collectively known under the rather misleading term “Plan B”, are diverse and often contradictory. There is no space in the bandwidth of this or any website to cover all of the ideas in question, but all of them at their core generally move towards (even if sometimes do stop just short of) a concept known by the shorthand “UDI”, which stands for “unilateral declaration of independence”, which is, in a word, when you declare a territory is now a sovereign state without the pre-existing permission of the state you are seceding from.

I could just tell you I think this is a disastrous idea and end this here. But I don’t think that’s very intellectually honest. For starters, a non-referendum path to independence was SNP policy for decades until the onset of devolution, so if I’m going to attack the entire basis of the fundamentalist tradition in Scottish nationalism I should actually try and engage with its basic assumptions. It is worthwhile to look at the ‘success’ stories of UDI as much as the ‘failures’. Let’s do just that.

A cursory overview of recent centuries of human history can reveal that a fairly substantial proportion of the world’s countries gained independence from another power against that power’s will at first, with greater or larger degrees of direct confrontation. Examples range from the United States itself in 1776, to the Republic of Ireland in the 1920s, to a large number of the republics of the former USSR in 1990-91, to a number of “frozen conflict” zones across that same former USSR that remain unrecognised by the international community (Abkhazia, Transnistria, South Ossetia). And there are also uncountable failed UDIs, most of whom have become such footnotes in history most people have never heard of them (google the Kuban People’s Republic, for instance). These are all vastly different countries, but some patterns relevant to Scotland can be identified without even much specialist knowledge.

First of all, popular support matters. A vital factor behind the successful UDIs of the Baltic States in 1990 was the support of overwhelming majorities of the population for the independence movement in all three countries. Without these vast bases of support (see only the results of their independence referenda in 1991: 78.4% in favour under 82.9% turnout in Estonia, 74.9% in favour under 87.6% turnout in Latvia, and a whopping 93.2% in favour under 84.7% turnout in Lithuania) it is not difficult to assume that local institutions would have simply continued obeying the orders of the Soviet Government the way Catalan institutions did not attempt to stop Spanish state crackdown in Catalonia, where popular support is far more similar to the levels we see in Scotland, hovering around the 50% mark according to polling.

It is of course impossible to predict exactly how the UK Government would react, but at bare minimum the basic option available to them is to simply ignore the declaration and continue administering Scotland the way they already do. Emergency legislation could in that circumstance be passed by the Westminster Parliament dissolving the sitting Scottish Parliament at the time and calling new elections, since legally Westminster retains the power to legislate even over devolved affairs if it so chooses.

In this scenario Scottish society would have to be firmly united behind the goal of independence to stand firm in defiance of Westminster, and Scottish people and institutions would have to fairly unanimously unite behind independence in a way that seems decidedly unfeasible for the foreseeable when you consider how much we struggle to get over the 50% polling mark for Yes. As a reminder, Westminster could in this scenario legally order Police Scotland to merely arrest anyone who took action that obstructed its continued governing of the country. A UDI could, in a word, be simply ignored, and for it to mean anything it would have to be accompanied by a plan of action for making it impossible for Westminster to govern Scotland.

Here we come to an unfortunate fact: most unilaterally-declared states only gain this sort of real control over their territory by utilising active military force until the occupying power is forced to leave – see Ireland, Indonesia, the US, Abkhazia, any number of places over the last couple of centuries of the human experience. It is easier when pre-existing autonomous institutions, as they did in the Baltic States, do exist, but generally they too need to attain a monopoly of control over the territory of the country, and this is usually fiercely resisted even when it does not lead to war. And the record of intercommunal post-UDI violence in places like the former Yugoslavia bodes ill for the prospect in a country as divided on its identity as Scotland.

The reality is that if there is something we have learned from the difficulty of getting Scotland to 45% Yes in 2014, from the difficulty of mobilising voters in favour of Yes even in the context of resentment at the UK Government for the mismanagement of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, it is that Middle Scotland’s opinion on the issue of independence is fundamentally skittish and prone to shifts up and down caused by even the tiniest crises of faith – and this is perhaps to be expected. You cannot go to an electorate in a developed first world country and present them with a plan for action so radical it has historically usually led to war. It is an irresponsible strategy for an irresponsible game with the future of our country.

The advice I have for anyone nervous about the independence strategy is sadly at its core somewhat disappointing: we have no choice. We have to play the game of becoming independent by Westminster’s rules. If we do not secure a mutually agreed referendum (how we do that is a different issue for a different article, but I digress) we will not be independent. Any declaration will be ignored; any wildcat strategy that does not appear to be thought through will frighten Scotland’s indecisive electorate and send us back decades. And even if it somehow wielded public support it would have to be implemented in a way that we are certain will not cause great harm to our country.

This is frustrating to me as much as anyone. I believe at heart that the Scottish people are sovereign and that they alone should decide their future. I believe that Westminster refusing such an agreed referendum is an egregious violation of the social contract on which the Union between Scotland and England is built, and so do most Scots. But most Scots also have no desire to relive the Wars of Independence, because they know: for every Stirling Bridge, there is a Falkirk, and for every Prestonpans there is a Culloden. And we have a duty to avoid a nuclear age Culloden.