As the SNP begin the new Scottish parliamentary term by once again talking about an independence referendum, I’m reminded of famous analysis of political power. It’s said to have three dimensions. The power to make a decision is the most obvious. Then there’s the power to determine what’s on the agenda to be decided. As far as independence is concerned, Nicola Sturgeon controls neither: she cannot simply declare Scotland independent, nor can she put the question to the people for decision.
But the third dimension of power is the most significant: the ability to control debate so that some possibilities never even get considered. Here the SNP have been very successful, ensuring the only option for deciding Scotland’s future ever considered is running yet another referendum. Yes or no to a referendum is a handy proxy for yes or no to independence.
But just as yes or no is not the only constitutional choice, another referendum is not the only way forward. Indeed the evidence suggests it is nothing like the right way forward either.
That evidence is staring us in the face. It’s called Brexit. If you have a referendum campaign on an emotive issue the country is evenly split on, do not be surprised what you get. Scope for mendacity on an industrial scale; divisions deepened and entrenched; no consensus built, and so a result guaranteed to leave half the people deeply dissatisfied; and then finally an outcome nothing remotely like what was claimed, leaving a growing majority of the population increasingly regretful, but with no obvious way back.
In truth a referendum is a sensible way to confirm a decision already substantially made by the population, but a rotten way of making a contested existential choice. It offers little space for deliberation but plenty for shrill debate, has no place for negotiation but strengthens the extremes, and is pretty well guaranteed to leave the losing side withholding consent to the result.
There’s an irony here. A referendum wasn’t always the SNP’s plan but, denied one, they’ve no plausible alternative. Scotland, however, can’t go on endlessly like this, and needs a different way forward. The ideal would be a process involving the public in measured consideration of the choices, bringing both sides together to examine all the options that might be on the table, exploring the scope for compromise, and perhaps even offering the possibility of a consensus commanding substantial majority assent.
We’re starting to see the first hints of this, but it needs governments in Edinburgh and London with the imagination to look beyond their immediate partisan interests and think how political power could be used to unite, not divide, a nation.