Why were Labour and the Lib Dems in favour of a Scottish Parliament in the 1990s? Because they had plenty of members and voters who believed in Scotland – including quite a few who quietly supported independence – so the parties were well aware that supporting the creation of a parliament in Edinburgh was popular. It wasn’t something that they were forced into doing by the SNP.
The first independence referendum, however, changed everything. Lots of pro-devolutionists became independentistas (and in many cases joined the SNP or the Greens), and only unionists were left in Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories.
As a result, the Unionists can now afford to be extremely tough towards the Scottish Parliament and especially towards the prospects of a new independence referendum. Saying “now is not the time” forever is popular with the vast majority of their members and voters, so why should they change their tune?
Unfortunately, the SNP leadership don’t seem to have realised that times have changed. They seem to think that the only reason why the Tories are saying no to a new indyref is because the Yes vote in the opinion polls isn’t high enough yet, and that once it goes up, they’ll of course respect the sovereignty of the Scottish people and allow the referendum.
Perhaps they’re right, but I don’t think so. Politics is the art of the possible (as Bismarck once said), and why should they agree to a referendum that will only destroy the UK, when it’s possible to say no (because their members are applauding this rather than going mental)?
Nobody ever got a decent pay rise by telling their boss: “I’m not going to quit no matter what, and I’ll continue to be a great employee no matter how you treat me, but a pay rise would be very popular with my family, and it would be preposterous to deny it.” The way to get one is by being willing to quit if you don’t get it, or by having other ways to ensure it’s in their interest to agree.
So the SNP need to think hard about ways to make it in Westminster’s interest to hold another independence referendum – e.g., by refusing to play by the rules in the House of Commons.
If the SNP insist that they want to be the goody two-shoes party, being constructive and friendly no matter no outrageously Scotland gets ignored, I fear they’ll have painted themselves into a corner, and refusing to discuss alternative approaches at conference is definitely not going to get them out of it.
If getting a new independence referendum depends on changing the views of the Unionist parties, we might need to infiltrate them: We need to join them in big enough numbers that we can take over the branches and install our own branch officers. Given how few members these parties have UK-wide, we might even be able to choose the leader of the party at Westminster. We can then change their policies so that they all become pro-independence and pro-referendum.
It would be hard to pull off – especially because it would require tens of thousand of pro-independence people joining in for it to have any effect. It could work, however.
Perhaps it’s easier to change the SNP’s leadership, but it’s not clear a new leader would change anything – it’s a tough job when the Unionists are so intent on keeping Scotland tethered. The same applies to starting a new independence party – it could easily split the pro-indy vote needlessly without achieving anything.
I don’t know whether attempting to take over the Unionist parties is the best way forward, but something needs to change. Allowing Scotland to be dragged out of the EU without doing anything about it other than jumping up and down would be a huge disaster, and possibly one that the SNP will never recover from.