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Conference motion will plot path that can lead us to independence

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 29th Sep 2023

After debate about the party’s independence strategy being discouraged for a long time, SNP members have been promised a debate at this year’s conference. At the time of writing the conference’s final agenda – which was supposed to be published on September 22 – has yet to appear despite the conference being only two weeks away. Members who have expended a lot of time and energy discussing and drafting motions and seeking support for them from across the country are still in the dark as to whether the fruits of their labour will be debated at conference and how much time will be afforded to the debate.

This is not an ideal situation, given the timescale, but perhaps it is explained by the fact that the time limit for amendments to the resolution tabled by Humza Yousaf and Stephen Flynn only expired on Wednesday.

I believe it is vital that sufficient time is afforded for the debate and that it should cover not just the resolution put forward by the leadership but also resolutions from the grassroots. I would like to see a day, or a minimum of three hours set aside. Ideally, I think it’s a debate the party should have had in private but given the wide discussion already sparked in the media I think the ship may have sailed on that. I have given my support to one of the resolutions tabled by ordinary members and I am also co-sponsoring, with the SNP Trade Union Group (TUG), an amendment to Humza and Stephen’s resolution.

The resolution from the Almond and Earn branch which I and many others have co-sponsored proposes that the SNP put independence front and centre of every national election for either the UK or the Scottish parliaments. If the SNP and other pro-independence parties secure 50%+1 of the votes cast at such an election, that would constitute a mandate for Scotland to become an independent country. If within 90 days of the election the UK Government did not engage meaningfully with the Scottish Government, for example by meeting to discuss independence negotiations, then the SNP would withdraw our MPs from Westminster and convene a National Assembly consisting of MPs, MSPs and representatives of civic Scotland. What is envisaged here is explicitly not a de facto referendum. If 50%+1 votes are not achieved at the General Election, while Scotland will remain in the UK for the time being, the issue will be live again at the next Holyrood election. So, it is not a one-off, once-in-a-generation situation.

In truth, it’s a return to the old SNP position pre-devolution which recognises that given there has been an independence referendum won by the No side, and the SNP already have a majority of the seats at Westminster, what is now required for a mandate for independence is a majority of votes cast not just a simple majority of seats. The amendment which I have drafted to the leadership resolution, and with the backing of the TUG, also amends in the requirement of a majority of votes, not seats. But it goes further by restating the basic principle that as a matter of international law, the people of Scotland have the same right to self-determination as other peoples and are not prohibited from exercising that right by way of secession from the United Kingdom after a democratic expression of the view of the Scottish electorate. This is necessary because an unintended consequence of the ill-fated trip to the UK Supreme Court (UKSC) to ask permission for Holyrood to hold a referendum, were remarks made by the court to the effect that this right does not apply to the people of Scotland.

Fortunately, these comments were “obiter dicta” the phrase lawyers use for aspects of a judgment which are not binding. Furthermore, the Supreme Court of the UK could never have the final word on a matter of international law. I think they got the law wrong, and an independent opinion obtained by Neale Hanvey MP from Professor Robert McCorquodale, an expert in international law, agrees. Nevertheless, the principle requires to be restated by the SNP because the UKSC judgment has given currency to those who wish to thwart the independence movement. We are stuck with the UKSC’s opinion on the limits of Holyrood’s competence, but we don’t have to accept their mistaken view on the right of the Scots to self-determination.

In my opinion, confusion has arisen between the rights and competences of the current Scottish Parliament which is a creature of statute and the devolution settlement and the rights of the people of Scotland. The former may not have the power to end the Union between Scotland and England, but the latter certainly does, and this was the received wisdom of even Unionists until lately. This brings me to the second part of my amendment to the leadership resolution which reaffirms the commitment to set up a Constitutional Convention made by Nicola Sturgeon in January 2020. It is also designed to make sure that independence negotiations with the UK Government are taken forward by a Constitutional Convention constituted by the MPs elected to Westminster, MSPs and representatives of civic Scotland. This body, which would not be a creature of devolution, would accordingly not be hamstrung in any way by the limitations set out in the Scotland Act, but it would have democratic legitimacy.

I am delighted to have secured the backing of the TUG for my ideas on strategy. I understand that they are also in support of the wording Tommy Sheppard has tabled as an amendment to the leadership motion which provides a longstop covering the eventuality of the party not winning a majority of the votes cast but a majority of seats at the General Election. In so far as that amendment would set up a negotiating position with an incoming UK Government for more powers for Holyrood including, vitally, the permanent transfer of legal power to the Scottish Parliament to determine how Scotland is governed, including the transfer of power to enable it to legislate for a referendum, I am also minded to support it. I sincerely hope that these resolutions and amendments will form part of the debate at conference, and for the reasons I have set out in this column I believe it is vital that they do so.