Scotland was a constitutional oddity for a long time. It was a bit like Schrödinger’s cat – you cannot determine whether it’s dead or alive until you open the box, and once you’ve done that, you can never return it to the previous indeterminate state. In the same way, Scotland was simultaneously both a sovereign nation and a region of the UK: Basically the same politicians would talk about Scotland being a proud nation inside a voluntary political union in one context, and about the UK being a monolithic state in another. It didn’t matter that both couldn’t really be true at the same time, because there was no conflict.
Seen from the Foreign Office or from abroad, Scotland looked like a region of the UK with some separate institutions, not unlike Bavaria, Texas or Sønderjylland/North Schleswig, but in a domestic context it functioned like a proud nation that had formed a political union with England but was still independent in most areas.
The first independence referendum, however, had the same effect as opening the box containing Schrödinger’s cat. It forced people to make a choice, making up their minds with regard to Scotland’s status. In effect, the first independence referendum was asking whether Scotland was a British region or a sovereign nation, the former of course was, of course, the winner.
This was made worse by the vapid response to Theresa May’s “Now is not the time!” nearly three years ago. Back in the days when Scotland’s status was still very much indeterminate, such an answer would have been impossible (and this is probably also why it surprised Nicola Sturgeon so much). By accepting the Prime Minister’s deferment so readily, it encouraged the view that Scotland was now simply a region like Yorkshire.
Schrödinger’s country was accompanied by Schrödinger’s mandate: When the Unionists were convinced there would never be a majority for independence amongst the Scottish MPs, they were very happy to state publicly that if such a situation every arose, it would of course be a mandate to declare Scotland independent, without any need for a referendum. So it was a mandate that was never fully nailed down – people were very happy to refer to it, but whether it actually ever existed is an open question. Would Thatcher have respected it if the Scottish Labour MPs had all voted for independence in the mid-80s, or would she have moved the goalposts? We’ll never know for sure. Again, by agreeing to the first independence referendum, the UK government basically defined what was needed for a referendum (namely the agreement of both governments), and it’s now almost irrelevant what was thought to constitute a mandate previously.
The problem we’re facing now is that different people seem to exist in different realities. The Tories seem to have concluded that the 2014 referendum decided that the UK is a nation state, of which Scotland is a region like Yorkshire, and that it’s entirely up to the UK Government whether it’s time to hold a new independence referendum (and they’re against it, of course). The Scottish independentistas, on the other hand, have concluded that Scotland is a sovereign nation that just happened to vote not yet last time, and that it was established back in 2012 that a majority of MSPs at Holyrood can request and require a Section 30 order from Westminster to hold a new referendum at any time.
Unfortunately, we cannot force Westminster to accept our interpretation. The UK Supreme Court will also most likely back up the UK Parliament if it ever gets tested in court, so we seem to have reached an impasse.
We cannot make Scotland’s status ambiguous again, and we cannot make the UK accept our view of what constitutes a mandate.
It therefore seems to me that the Scottish Government are stuck. Their approach seems to have been based on the UK aiming to accommodate Scotland’s ambiguous status by never directly contradicting the view that the Scottish people are sovereign, but now that Boris Johnson and the other English “Unionists” are happy to say that there is no such thing as a Scottish mandate, we need to find a new way forward. (I put “Unionists” in quotation marks because they really don’t see the UK as a union but as one nation.)
I don’t claim to know exactly what we need to do instead, but insisting that the UK must respect a Scottish mandate is clearly futile when the leading politicians of England have looked at Schrödinger’s country and decided it was really a region all along.