OVER New Year, I was re-reading one of my favourite novels, Extraordinary Women by Compton Mackenzie. It’s a richly comic satire based on his and his wife’s experiences in lesbian society on the island of Capri where they lived during and after the First World War. Unfortunately, it’s out of print but if you can get hold of a copy, I highly recommend it.

Like many of his fellow founders of the SNP, Compton Mackenzie was an intellectual and a free thinker. If he had not been prepared to question conventional beliefs and the status quo in the 1930s, he would not have been able to envisage an independent Scotland.

Members of the SNP can rightly be proud of those who founded our party. If we look at the biographies of just a handful of Mackenzie’s fellow founders, we see writers and thinkers abound. Robert Cunningham Graham, writer, journalist and adventurer; Florence Marian McNeill, folklorist, writer and suffragist; and Andrew Dewar Gibb QC, Regius Professor of law at the University of Glasgow and chairman of the Saltire Society.

These people were nationalists and internationalists who celebrated their country’s culture but also believed in vigorous debate and analysis.

To those who have come since, the goal of independence has often seemed unreachable given the obstacles we have faced. Now, as we enter 2021, the SNP ride high in the polls and support for independence is at unprecedented levels.

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We would never have got this far had we and those who went before us not been prepared to be radical and to think outside the box.

Like others who have been part of the struggle for most of their lives, I am acutely aware of the length of time it has taken to get to the brink of realising our dream.

In 1980, at the age of 14, together with Ian Blackford and John Swinney, I was a founding member of the Edinburgh branch of the Young Scottish Nationalists. A few years later, like Ian, I became disillusioned after the expulsion of the left-wing radical 79 Group from the SNP and joined the Labour Party. At that time, this seemed the best way to combat Thatcher’s Britain. During my years as a Labour Party member I became involved in the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly then Scotland United in 1992. By that time SNP and Labour Party members were making common cause for a multi-option referendum – independence, devolution or the status quo.

While Labour abandoned that idea when they came to power in 1997 they kept faith with the demand for a devolved Parliament and delivered it – but only with the support of the SNP. That support was not given lightly and was secured only after a series of private meetings between Donald Dewar and Alex Salmond in which Alex secured a concession that nothing in the Scotland Act would preclude the people of Scotland from subsequently choosing an independent future.

This concession is recorded in Hansard during the second reading of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill in the House of Commons on May 21, 1997. Donald Dewar said: “I should be the last to challenge the sovereignty of the people, or deny them the right to opt for any solution to the constitutional question they wished. For example, if they want to go for independence, I see no reason why they should not do so. In fact, if they want to, they should. I would be the first to accept that.”

In the same debate Alex Salmond went on to emphasise that “… the Claim of Right referred to the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine a form of Government best suited to their needs. It did not suggest that sovereignty resides with English Members of Parliament and that’s the way it will stay.”

Donald Dewar articulated the democratic norm which would later be enshrined in the Edinburgh Agreement. His concession laid the foundation for the 2014 referendum in recognising the rights of Scots to choose whether to remain part of our voluntary union with England.

I am wholly in agreement with the view that we must find a legal and constitutional way to demonstrate that public opinion in Scotland has changed since the 2014 referendum in order for our independence to be internationally recognised and therefore meaningful.

I ALSO agree that the easiest and best way to do that would be to replicate the Edinburgh Agreement entered into by Alex Salmond and David Cameron in 2012 by obtaining a Section 30 order so that the Scottish Parliament may hold a second independence referendum which will demonstrate irrefutably that the result of the first one has been reversed. But what if Boris Johnson continues to refuse to co-operate?

Last Sunday, Andrew Marr asked Boris Johnson what democratic tools are available to Scottish voters who want Scotland to leave the UK. He put to the PM the case of the Scottish voter who wants another referendum but only has his vote to secure it and asked how he can do that. What, he said, is different from the English wanting to leave the EU and being allowed to have a referendum and Scots who want to leave the UK but not being allowed to have a referendum?

This is becoming known as the Marr Question. And it’s a question which must also concern the SNP.

It is foolish and dangerous to rail against having a plan to do things differently, should it be required. Foolish, because it undermines the carefully achieved gains of our movement such as the concession Alex Salmond secured from Donald Dewar. Dangerous, because it re-inforces the power of our adversary and cements in the minds of the international community that the only way Scotland can leave the UK and become independent legally and constitutionally is by replicating the 2014 referendum.

This is patently not true. One hundred years ago, Irish independence came about not as a result of a referendum but as a result of a treaty negotiated between Irish parliamentarians and the British Government after nationalist MPs had won the majority of Irish seats in the 1918 General Election and withdrawn to form a provisional government in Dublin.

While no-one wants to replicate the violence that preceded those negotiations, the Treaty is in legal and constitutional terms a clear precedent which shows that a constituent part of the UK can leave and become independent by a process of negotiation after a majority of pro-independence MPs win an election in that constituent part.

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Prior to the advent of devolution, it was thought that a simple majority of pro-independence Scottish MPs would be sufficient to open negotiations on independence. Mrs Thatcher appeared to endorse this view in her memoirs.

That is why some have suggested using a Scottish election or indeed a further General Election as a plebiscite if a Section 30 order continues to be refused. It is short-sighted to view the question of how we might lawfully end a consensual union of two sovereign nations which is more than 300 years old only through the prism of devolution which has been with us for barely two decades and is not the last word on the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England.

On January 24, an SNP virtual National Assembly will take place to discuss “the tactics and strategy on the route from here to Independence Day”. SNP depute leader Keith Brown is to be commended for securing this important discussion which is open to all party members and will be conducted in private. A recent opinion poll suggested two-thirds of voters want a fall-back strategy to secure a second independence vote if a Section 30 order is refused this time round.

That such a strategy is needed because it may be required is in fact a no-brainer. In her speech of January 31, 2020, the First Minister was careful not to rule other routes out of the question. Others would do well to follow her lead.