AT the weekend it was announced in the pages of The National that the SNP will be introducing its draft Referendum Bill to Parliament in the next few weeks. This follows the production of the 11-point plan by Michael Russell and the bill passed by Parliament last year determining the rules and principles for a referendum.

The SNP will therefore be seeking the approval of the Scottish people to hold a referendum, to win that referendum and for Scotland to then win its independence. Where we would expect the UK Government to fully participate in that process, the plan outlines that if it refused to participate a referendum would be designed and held in Scotland fulfilling our democratic commitment to the people of Scotland.

May will therefore be the most important election in Scotland’s constitutional history. If the SNP secure a victory, a referendum will be held. One would have thought that the whole movement would unite around this plan and ensure that we are successful in this ambition. But there are still those who want to turn May’s election into what they call a “plebiscite” and abandon entirely the referendum strategy. Nothing could be more perilous to our independence ambitions and if this plebiscite is pursued it could derail the whole independence project.

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The idea of a plebiscite is actually a very simple concept. What it proposes is that we turn May’s scheduled election into a “referendum” on independence. If successful its proposers suggest that this would lead to Scotland opening negotiations for independence with the UK. In advance, the UK will be offered a final opportunity to “give” a Section 30 order.

I think we can safely presume that the UK Government will treat that ultimatum with nothing other than derision and contempt, whilst at the same time making it abundantly clear that the result of any plebiscite will be rejected and totally ignored.

What is also certain is that all the Unionist opposition parties would defiantly refuse to participate in an election framed on this basis. Where there would be no question of them boycotting the election, what they would do is simply refuse to engage on a basis of a plebiscite and would fight it on what is included in their manifestos.

You could then only start to imagine the campaign that would be waged by the Unionist parties. There would be all sorts of claims of the SNP seeking to subvert a scheduled election or the SNP treating the Scottish people with contempt. They would have endless joy in presenting a “single-issue” SNP refusing to talk about how they would govern. They would see this as a golden opportunity to roll back our gains made with soft-No voters. It would be utter carnage. What the proposers of this plebiscite conveniently overlook is that the Scottish people genuinely care about their democracy and want to have a debate about services, leadership, vision and governance.

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But the biggest issue with all of this is the questions around democratic legitimacy. What this does is dispense with the principle at the heart of the campaign for Scottish independence that independence should be secured on the expressed consent of the Scottish people. We would be abandoning the case of a dedicated referendum to decide our future just as we are winning people over to supporting it. To do this weeks before an election would just leave the electorate bewildered and would be nothing other than madness.

But let’s just say that we do somehow manage to get the Scottish people to go along with all of this and somehow this plebiscite prevails. What happens next?

THIS is a UK Government that we are invited to presume will always say no. We are then expected to accept the notion that they will turn completely on their heads and agree to negotiate the terms of independence following a process that they refused to participate in and made clear they would reject and ignore.

“We’ll just do it anyway,” you might then say. Well, this is where we start to get into some seriously tricky territory. What “just doing it anyway” means is we would be doing something similar to what Catalonia did when they won their uncontested referendum. This would in effect mean declaring some sort of unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). The consequences of which could not be more serious.

What about the international community coming to our rescue, I can hear some people gently enquire? Well sorry, not a chance. Could you imagine for a moment turning up to the international community asking for our independence to be recognised when the state we are seeking to leave has had absolutely nothing to do with the process, where there has been an absence of a proposition from the No side and the whole question has not been properly debated? We would be laughed out of the room.

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The only part of the international community that has offered any sort of opinion on Scottish independence is the EU who have repeatedly said that they would be genuinely supportive of Scottish independence if it is pursued “legally, constitutionally and in partnership with the UK”. An uncontested plebiscite is the antithesis of that.

But there is one group of people who would be absolutely delighted if we abandoned the referendum route and embarked down this dead end, and they inhabit the Conservative benches of the House of Commons.

What a plebiscite does is let the Tories off the referendum hook. They know that if the SNP replicate the conditions of the 2011 election and secure another majority it is all more or less over. The Tories know a referendum is coming.

The Tories’ last chance of saving their Union is if we beat ourselves. Their only plan is to continue to say no, then hope that it is accepted as gospel and count on the frustration and division building it would cause. If we went down a plebiscite route it would be a total vindication of their “plan No”. They, without doing anything, will have pushed us down the road of the electorally unpalatable whilst ending their referendum woes.

A plebiscite can not possibly get us to independence and achieves nothing other than letting the Tories off the hook. I do regret that this debate has never been concluded and put to bed. It should have been put to our conference where it would have been overwhelmingly rejected by the party. The idea of debating it now at our spring conference would be almost madness. The idea of the SNP debating strategies for independence in the last few days of an election campaign would be an absolute gift to the press and our opponents and couldn’t damage us more.

How much better off we would be if that energy was instead spent on winning that majority, securing a referendum and winning our independence.