When the evidence set out in Part 1 is put to pro-independence enthusiasts, they reply that the institutions of the state would not be able to resist the popular pressure of a mass of public opinion for a further referendum. Indeed, this appears to be the view of the First Minister with her repeated opinion that “the people will decide.”
The first point make in response is that a referendum is an exception in parliamentary system: it stands outside the norm of representative democracy, which is why it is used only sparingly to try to settle a point of major importance, usually concerning the constitution or national sovereignty. Therefore it is quite right that it should be in hands of those elected to uphold parliament’s sovereignty to decide when to hold a referendum.
Moreover, having held a referendum in September 2014, it is the duty of the Westminster parliament to protect the will of the voters of Scotland who voted No, whatever the outcome of a later parliamentary election.
The reading of Sturgeon and others – that an ill-defined “popular will” should prevail– is a direct attack on representative democracy and should be resisted by parliament for these reasons, if no other.
With Scotland’s MPs rendered impotent by being outside the possibility of government, a programme of extra-parliamentary action would be the remaining resort of those seeking a new referendum.
The last time such direct challenges to Parliament took place was in the 1980s, in the forms of the Miner’s Strike, Ratecapping, and the Poll Tax. In the first two of these cases, specifically politically motivated actions (including the declared aim of bringing down the government of the day) were decisively defeated. In the case of the Poll Tax, the decisive factor in its defeat (and the fall of Prime Minister Thatcher) was its negative impact in the country as expressed by voters at bye-elections.
It is also worth noting the differences in the case of the Poll tax between England and Scotland, and between then and now. Although the Poll Tax had been introduced a year earlier in Scotland (on the insistence of Scottish Tory MPs), there was only a low-level campaign of civil disobedience amongst Scots, unlike in England, where rioting took place. The main form of protest in Scotland was non-payment of the Poll Tax, which was ineffective as a protest and harmed only local government and its clients.
The main routes of extra-parliamentary action are demonstrations, and civil disobedience non-co-operation, and non-payment of taxes and charges.
In first case, Scotland has seen mass demonstrations against Westminster before, again most recently under the Conservatives . Following the 1992 General Election, large numbers of people gathered under the banners of Scotland United and the Campaign for Scottish Democracy – with no effect on the Conservative government of the day. It was up to the incoming Labour government to introduce the devolution settlement of 1999. In turn, it was the Labour government of 2003 which illustrated the impotence of public demonstrations on the parliamentary process in a representative democracy when in the case of protests against the Iraq War.
Again, there are now very few unconvinced Scottish MPs to pressure through demonstrations: the SNP is the captive of its own success.
In the case of non-co-operation between the SNP and the Westminster government, there are two possible routes. The first would be to limit or refuse contacts between the Scottish Government at Holyrood and the UK government: in this case it is hard to see what effect this might have on the Scottish public, other than delays and confusion in capital projects and services. The second would be to withdraw SNP MPs from Westminster as a protest. In this case, it is hard to see what detriment this would be in the House of Commons: into the bargain, the SNP’s coveted place as Third Party would be surrendered to either the Liberal Democrats or the DUP (both of which have 8 seats.)
As for non-payment of taxes and charges, it is again hard to see how such a campaign could be effective. In the case of Income Tax, the vast majority of employees have this deducted at source through PAYE – and unlike the Poll Tax, there would be little or no outrage at the plight of the least well off, as these pay little or no Income Tax due to the coalition government having raised thresholds substantially. And if there is such a boycott, new arrangements for devolved Income Tax may very well simply rebound on the revenues available to the Scottish Government itself.
Which leaves the non-payment of other charges: perhaps Vehicle Tax or Television licences? Vehicle Tax would be an irritant to the government but no more (and hard to demonstrate now tax discs have been scrapped.) To boycott TV licences would only discomfit the BBC.
Which leaves only the routes of riot, insurrection and uprising: which surely only the most foolhardy and extreme Scottish Nationalists would even contemplate, having witnessed the strife and heartbreak of another part of the UK a few dozen miles away in Northern Ireland.
To conclude: there is no extra-parliamentary route to a second independence referendum which is not anti-democratic, impractical, ineffective or dangerous to civil order.
The future therefore looks to be one without a second referendum. So what is Tony Blair up to? My guess is that he is playing a bit of a game, using the spectre of an unwanted break-up of the UK to try to push people to towards a “Remain” vote. If so, he should knock it off right now. Because it doesn’t look like it will – or can – happen.