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14 January 2022

Why support is emerging for a “third option” on Scottish independence

A middle way between secession and the status quo is attracting interest from unlikely places. Can it break the constitutional deadlock?

By Rory Scothorne

Home rule, like Satan, goes by many names. “Dominion” was driven out of fashion by its colonial associations; “devolution” offers a more modern spin. But even that has a kind of Russian-doll multiplicity to it: under the gentlest pressure, the Union – supposedly sealed in 2014 – springs open to reveal ever-smaller versions of itself, from promises of “more powers” to visions of “full fiscal autonomy” and “devo max”. Real substance or action rarely follows.

This has happened enough times now that supporters of independence tend to roll their eyes at the mere utterance of those names. This conditioned scepticism is hardly conducive to constructive debate, but it is a predictable result of the stalemate in which Scotland finds itself. The SNP is predominant because independence supporters are largely united behind it, and so it must continue pushing independence as the solution to Scotland’s problems. The three opposition parties are left battling over Unionist voters, and thus cannot concede to the SNP’s demand for a new referendum – which only reinforces the nationalist point that Westminster has no respect for Scottish democracy. The space between these trenches was once a verdant meadow where the Scottish parliament was designed and built; today it is a blasted wasteland, where anybody who moves gets shelled to bits.

Pity Chris Hanlon, then, the SNP’s former policy convener, who strolled out into that no-man’s land last week with an article for the National on the merits of a third constitutional option. His idea of “devo-min-max” aims for “the smallest amount of increased devolution that… those who support independence can live with”: this would mean guarantees of Holyrood’s permanent status and its supremacy on devolved matters, and the right to hold referendums to amend the Scotland Act on the basis of a simple majority in Holyrood and among the voters. This was met with a bombardment of virtual sneers from grassroots activists and Scottish government ministers alike.

Yet among the rubble and the craters, something is definitely stirring. While it is especially rare to see heads pop up from the SNP trenches, there is nevertheless a growing band of lost souls trying to make compromise sprout in the desolation. There are, broadly speaking, three elements of this embryonic coalition. The first is sincere and technocratic, motivated by a desire to break the deadlock and return attention to questions of progressive policy that have been squeezed out by the constitutional binary. This includes academics like James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, who has argued that “a large part of the problem with current debates is that the start and end point is constitutional preference. An alternative approach would be to first consider what kind of Scotland is desired then how this is best to be achieved.” Mitchell has proposed a two-tier referendum question, in which voters would first be asked to choose between the status quo and change, before picking between more powers or independence.

In the same camp are prominent columnists like the Times’s Kenny Farquharson, whose columns are often revealing about the emotional associations and identities underpinning such constitutional centrism: “A hardline approach,” Farquharson wrote in May last year, “will lead to nothing but division and rancour. Hardness is the politics of the past. The future belongs to the Softies.” Farquharson’s column last week, however, called for a more “muscular centrism” to counter the “muscular unionism and muscular nationalism” that dominate Scottish politics.

This is not just the pet project of a few public intellectuals; it is tempting at least one serious institutional backer in the shape of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), which agreed last year that “a referendum need not be a binary choice between independence and the status quo”. Today, the STUC is much diminished from its 20th-century greatness, when it was at the heart of Scottish influence under the corporatist system of “administrative devolution” that preceded Holyrood. But while the STUC was vital to the political bridge-building efforts that led to the Scottish parliament, the question of independence presents it with a political problem. Although all the major Scottish trade unions opposed independence in 2014, their members are much more divided on the question. A third option, covering things like the devolution of employment law, would give the Scottish labour movement a means to transcend those divisions, and restate its distinctive relevance to Scottish political life.

There is also a more directly political element to the case for a third option. Within Scottish Labour, the left-wing Red Paper Collective has been arguing for something called “progressive federalism” for years, and strongly influenced an official party report commissioned under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership on the future of the British constitution. The group includes several current and former MSPs, as well as former leader Richard Leonard. Like the STUC, it views a third option as a means of giving Labour a distinctive thing to campaign for, especially in a future referendum. Without this, the party would be stuck on the same side as the Conservatives for a second time – with similarly disastrous results.

Yet there is another, more unexpected strand to the politics of a third option. Within the nationalist camp, the most surprising argument in support has come not from the gradualist SNP, but from Kenny MacAskill – a former SNP justice secretary and arch-gradualist himself, but now an MP for the more fundamentalist Alba Party. Last June, MacAskill argued that “something needs to be done to break the logjam and move the country on”, identifying an extension of “Home Rule” as the best compromise position. MacAskill’s motives aren’t hard to divine. If you believe that the SNP is using independence to distract from its failures in government, with little intention of actually forcing the issue – as many Alba members do – then it’s easy to see how one step back to devo max might expose the SNP to a more effective assault, and clear the ground for a greater leap forward further down the line.

This is a strange coalition indeed. But behind the various motives and manoeuvres, there is something shared that goes deep: a generational disenchantment with the more cynical compromises of electoral politics, and a palpable yearning for the more optimistic, bridge-building pragmatism that characterised Scottish public life before we started directly electing our national representatives in 1999. Intellectuals, trade unions, the Labour left and dissident nationalists could once claim to speak for the nation, and could form alliances to do so without ever having to hear from the people as a whole. They could, as a result, imagine that their particular priorities – socialism or nationalism, Union or independence, or the middle grounds between them – boasted a more authentic popular legitimacy than was really the case. They could also imagine that Scotland was a better, more dignified and enlightened place than might have been reasonable at the time.

Now that Scotland has a parliament, the nation speaks more directly for itself, and many are disappointed by the sound of its voice. But the same goes for most of the democratic world. That here, too, the voice of the people has turned out to be divided, repetitive and ineffectual tells us more about the limitations of liberal democracy than it does about Scotland’s particular constitutional problems. The new clamour for a “third option” does tell us something about Scotland, however: faced with such deep systemic flaws, even our constitutional pacifists – out there in no-man’s land – see no way off the battlefield. The best they can do is dig their own trench.

[See also: Covid-19 has shown that devolution is broken]

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