The SNP's Gilet Jaune wildcat has escaped

The SNP's Gilet Jaune wildcat has escaped

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 8, March, 2019

IT ALL SEEMED like such a great idea at the time. Faced with what they believed to be an intransigent Spanish Government, the separatist administration in Catalonia decided in 2017 to hold a referendum on self-determination, despite having no power under the Spanish constitution to do so. Held on 1st October 2017, the result was a resounding victory for the separatists, with 92 per cent of votes being cast in favour of the proposition that Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic.

However, the bare facts of the result do not tell the whole story. The anti-separatist political parties effectively boycotted what they considered to be an illegal referendum, with the consequence that many pro-Spain voters simply sat on their hands and did not turn out. The overall percentage of registered voters participating was only 43.03 per cent, meaning that a simple majority of Catalan residents did not support the proposition.

The consequences of this illegal act are still with us, with twelve Catalan leaders currently on trial in Madrid, facing charges including rebellion and sedition. If convicted, some could face up to 25 years in prison. The former President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont is not amongst those on trial, having fled into exile.

In view of the troubled history of the wildcat referendum in Catalonia, it hardly seems credible that any Scottish Nationalist would propose doing something similar here. And yet that is exactly what the Deputy Leader of the SNP, Keith Brown MSP, seemed to be suggesting to SNP activists in Aberdeen last month.  A video emerged on YouTube of Mr Brown telling a party meeting: “If we want to have a referendum, then we decide we are going to have a referendum”. It sounded like a call to arms, and a commitment to hold a referendum regardless of the legal position.

In terms of the UK constitution, the legal framework for a constitutional referendum is quite clear. These are matters reserved to Westminster, and in the event of the Scottish Parliament passing a Bill for another independence referendum, there would require to be a Section 30 agreement between the UK and Scottish Governments permitting such a vote to be held. This is what was done in advance of the 2014 referendum, so the process is now well understood.

In reply to suggestions post the EU referendum in 2016 from the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that it was time for another independence referendum, the response from the Prime Minister Theresa May was quite clear: now is not the time. This stance of the UK Government was reiterated on Thursday by the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, during a visit to Glasgow. So there is no prospect of legal powers for a second independence referendum anytime soon.

And that has led to growing frustration amongst some in Nationalist ranks, who are concerned that the pro-independence parties at Holyrood might lose their majority after the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, which would put a referendum off the table for at least another five years. If Westminster is going to say no, the argument goes, then we need to take the bull by the horns and just hold our own referendum, whether legal or not.

When the story of Keith Brown’s comments was broken by The Sun newspaper on Thursday morning, he immediately started to roll back, suggesting that all he was talking about was the demand for Section 30 powers being given to Holyrood. But with growing numbers in the Nationalist movement undoubtedly attracted by the prospect of a wildcat vote, it is worth considering how such a referendum would play out.

There is nothing to stop the Scottish Parliament passing a Bill to conduct, and authorise payment for, a referendum on anything that it likes although such a referendum on a constitutional matter would have no legal standing without a Section 30 agreement being in place. And it is not necessarily the case that a legal challenge could prevent such a referendum being held.

But even if such a vote were to take place, we could expect a similar response as the one witnessed in Catalonia, whereby there was effectively a unionist boycott of the whole process. Not only would pro-UK voters refuse to participate, but I believe that unionist politicians would not give the referendum credibility by running a “No” campaign. This boycott would create issues for broadcasters, whose requirements for a political balance would mean that they would effectively be blocked from providing referendum coverage.

The outcome of this whole process would likely be, as in Catalonia, a large pro-independence vote on a very small turn out. It would address nothing, and yet cause more division and bitterness across the country. Sensible heads within the SNP know all this, which is why Keith Brown was reined in so quickly on Thursday morning. But the fact that a wildcat referendum is even being talked about demonstrates the increasingly fractious mood within the Nationalist movement.

Despite all the SNP’s hopes that Brexit would lead to a surge in the support for independence, there is simply no evidence that this has happened. It is hardly good politics for the SNP to press for a referendum without being reasonably confident of their chances of winning. It now looks like we will have to wait until 2021, and the outcome of that Scottish Parliament election, before we are any clearer whether a second independence referendum is likely.

Pictured, Keith Brown, the SNP's own Gilet Jaune.

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