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35 MIN READ TIME

How to hold a pre- 2021 independence referendum: a useful template

A “wildcat vote “. An “unsanctioned poll”. A “rebel referendum”. The mainstream media has certainly not been short of colourful vocabulary with which to purposely stigmatise the idea of an independence referendum held without Westminster’s approval, and thus without a Section 30 order to put its legality beyond doubt. And yet, oddly, there have been precious few words expended in helping the public understand in concrete terms how such an ‘abomination’ of a vote could actually come about in the first place. Perhaps that omission has been equally intentional, because for as long as the process remains opaque, there’s more of a tendency for independence supporters to have no faith in it ever bearing fruit, and to instead stick to the unpromising Plan A of waiting for some sort of killer argument to come along that will magically make Theresa May drop her “now is not the time” schtick. As opposed, well, to her successfully stringing things out until 2021 in the hope that by then there will no longer be a pro-independence majority at Holyrood, in which event the window of opportunity would have closed for at least several years, and possibly a lot longer.

That being our dilemma, it could be that the UK government unwittingly did us an enormous favour by pursuing their assault on the devolution settlement to the point where Nicola Sturgeon had no choice but to launch a Continuity Bill, deemed by London to be outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament. Because that, of course, is precisely the same first step that would have to be taken to bring about a consultative indyref without a Section 30 order. All of a sudden we’re in a position to visualise exactly what that would look like, and the penny has dropped that it wouldn’t be half as scary as we may have been led to believe. Holyrood would not be putting itself into some sort of Catalan-style state of rebellion against the British constitution simply by considering a Referendum Bill, because the parliament is allowed to go through the normal legislative processes even when there are doubts over whether a Bill is permissible – including, as we’ve seen, when those doubts are endorsed by the Presiding Officer.

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