Is a referendum imminent or are we caught in perpetual limbo?


In quantum mechanics, Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment that illustrates a paradox in which a hypothetical cat can be considered dead and alive at the same time. We seem to be living in this thought experiment in Scotland, Schrodinger’s referendum.

On the one hand, the SNP has committed £20m to a referendum they want to hold next year, for which they have been attacked and condemned by the unionist side.

Introducing the Progress to Yes Pledge in Aberdeen, Stewart Hosie explained that the pledge will be adopted by the “new Yes organization” to be announced soon.

Last week The Times reported that as soon as next week Nicola Sturgeon would present a proposal for an independent Scotland with a “set designer” of her vision for life outside the UK.

The document shared with us, due to be published earlier this week, will be the first in a series of papers being prepared by Constitutional Secretary Angus Robertson as they begin to advocate for a second referendum. Sturgeon’s spokesman also confirmed that a pro-independence “set designer” would be released before the end of Parliament.

Also last week the Scottish Government released (some) of its legal advice on its plans to hold a second referendum. The two-page document showed ministers had been informed they had a “legal basis” to consider the issue with the Electoral Commission and could start work on the documents, which are due to be released in the coming weeks.

On the other hand, skeptics and cynics (take your pick) point to the seemingly endless promises and hints of eternally forthcoming announcements, while — on the ground — little or no actual progress is being made. Movement is always “around the corner”.

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Within the nationalist movement, the harshest critics point to the wildest conspiracy, corruption and deceit, arguing that the SNP has been assimilated into the British state.

From left, Jonathon Shafi of his substack Independence Captured writes: “Put simply, despite what we’ve been told over the years, there’s no plan. Yes, there are some policy papers to be released to start a ‘discussion’. When will they be released? According to Ian Blackford in The Time To Come. It all seems so fluid and so hard to pin down. We had so many variations on the referendum theme. A referendum will take place after the ‘fog of Brexit’ clears. Or it will happen, “Covid allowed”. The people of Scotland will have their say in the not too distant future…elasticity is built into the wording.”

So what’s up? Will there be another referendum? If yes, when and how?

Unlike Schrödinger’s cat, the referendum cannot be alive and dead at the same time. It seems that the endless elasticity is coming to an end. There are broadly three options.

In the first scenario, Sturgeon and her administration will table the legislation and announce next year’s referendum, effectively challenging the beleaguered Johnson regime to challenge it in court. This is a potential win-win scenario as it initially “does something” and corners the UK government into actively suppressing a vote. The thought is that this is not a good sight for the British government.

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There are problems with this approach, first of all that Johnson’s administration has nothing to lose and doesn’t really care about optics. Do you think he owes Douglas Ross a favor? The second problem is that we don’t know which way a court decision would go.

In another scenario, Sturgeon could ignore Westminster entirely and treat the referendum as a non-binding mass poll likely to be boycotted by unionists. It is not clear whether this boycott would be effective. The goal would be to undermine the poll’s credibility, but it would also almost guarantee a big yes win. Would Better Together risk it? In addition, it could be argued that the referendum will be confirmed in the following elections.

The third scenario is that the conspiracy theorists were right all along. In this scenario, Sturgeon and colleagues are revealed around October 2023 like Scooby-Doo villains, squirming and yelling “you pesky kids.” In this scenario, politicians and an entire political party committed to independence would completely and utterly implode overnight.

But why are we in this place?

Political timidity, over-caution and exhaustion certainly play a part. Assimilation and drift to the right are also factors, that’s true. Some have called it a “stalemate between social democratic rhetoric and neoliberal economics”.

The overcentralization of the SNP has also introduced sclerosis into the process and moderated the dynamics. The party’s legendary professionalism is both its greatest strength and its Achilles’ heel. Also, it’s true, and not easy to scoff at, that the Scottish Government, you know, ‘reigned’.

But none of this really explains the inertia and skepticism that permeates much of the movement.

As Shafi writes again, “Let’s be absolutely clear. Any party really focused on holding and winning a referendum next year would have launched a campaign bringing together a platform of recognizable individuals and organizations with broad societal clout. Not only would they be on the verge of possibly releasing some policy briefings “in the time to come”. They had developed the argument several years in advance and presented the case convincingly. They would have a clear and identifiable strategy for how independence would be achieved democratically.”

MY feeling is that the SNP is finding it extremely difficult to reconcile their internal forces and the consequences of the tensions within. The over-centralization at the top practically guarantees this. Polls have told them that a new currency is a hard sell, so instead of engaging in that hard sell, they capitulated to an attitude that makes absolutely no sense. You cannot have sterlingization and entry into the EU.

In other departments: on the climate crisis and energy policy; about access to affordable housing; to drug deaths; about education; it is locked in endless subterfuges and compromises in terms of transport infrastructure and post-pandemic economic recovery.

Despite this, the SNP remains in the lead in the elections. Large parts of Scotland (one or both) see them as the only option as to who should govern Scotland – and the only option to open the door to independence. That trust—out of place or not—does have a shelf life, however. Either because of the cumulative effect of so many years in office and a record of inevitable failure to undermine hegemony.

The problem for the opposition and for Scotland is that the SNP is not all being tested. For different reasons, neither Labor nor the Conservatives offer any compelling reason to believe that they could run the country better or that their constitutional solution – do nothing – is convincing. Being chained to the crumbling wreckage of the British state and the failures that have come with it is still repulsive to much of Scottish society.

But we have evolved from a liminal country to a country in limbo.

In a border space we have the feeling that we are moving towards something, as something out and towards something else. In floating land we simply feel Shafi’s endless “elasticity”.

What is needed is to reaffirm independence as a rupture, as a real and vital change. This process recognizes the scale of the crisis we are facing and its multidimensionality, and therefore the need for radical change. What we need is shock and failure, not endless twisting and repositioning. What does that mean? How can failure help?

As the philosopher Richard Rohr writes: “At the limit sometimes we have to do nothing and achieve nothing according to our usual patterns of success. Indeed, we must fail abruptly and stall on purpose to understand other dimensions of life.

“We must be silent instead of speaking, experience emptiness instead of fullness, anonymity instead of persona, and destitute instead of abundance. In the border area we descend and intentionally don’t come out or back up immediately. It takes time, but this experience can help us re-enter the world with freedom and new, creative approaches to life.”

There is no Schrödinger referendum. Either there will be one next year or not. Both are fine. We will no longer be in limbo.


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