The First Minister of Scotland has been pressing for a further independence referendum, and the UK government seems determined to refuse the request. I am not sure that either party means what it says. If the polls are to be believed, there is a narrow majority against independence; and in a time of great insecurity, with the difficulties of leaving another union all too apparent, many voters will be apprehensive about what a vote for independence might mean in practice. The longer the process, the more likely the movement for independence is to gain in credibility and support. If the UK government genuinely wishes to maintain the Union – which is uncertain – a proposal for independence is far more likely to be defeated if it takes place very soon.
On the other side, one has to ask whether the Scottish Government really is prepared for a referendum campaign that will avoid the traps that the last one fell into. During the long campaign before the 2014 referendum, the Scottish Government presented a ‘White Paper‘ with specific plans for action. Alex Salmond told the electorate that this is what they would be voting for. That was a miscalculation: it meant that every detail that people disagreed with became a reason to vote against the deal. The debate about currency was an illustration: units of exchange are not decided exclusively by governments, there was no need to commit to any specific plan, Scotland could use multiple currencies (it already trades oil in dollars) and in practice no-one can stop people accepting trades in foreign currency. Committing the country to a specific single policy outcome was unnecessary and destructive.
Similarly, the draft Independence Bill went off-track when it started to legislate for future policies, such as sustainability or the possession of nuclear weapons, which serve no useful purpose in a constitutional document. None of the constitutional issues that have to be nailed down was clearly settled. The draft Bill left gaps in terms of rules of recognition (such as delegation of authority to ministers or to local government), change (such as how to amend the constitution) and adjudication (such as the power of the courts). It assumed that there would be only one legislative chamber, which could not possibly have the capacity to deal with national legislation; it proposed no constitutional limitations on the power of government. I argued at the time that Scotland’s great strength was in participative public engagement, and that what Scotland needed to have was an extended period of discussion about constitutional arrangements. That discussion has not happened yet.
An early referendum would require the Scottish Government to go into the campaign either with another White Paper – a settled prospectus – or with a promise to have a discussion in time to come, something that would depend largely on on trust. Neither or those is a winning proposition.