The National:

WHEN thinking about the independence debate, I often divide it into two parts. The first part is the procedural debate on whether (and how) a referendum should happen. The second part is the substantive debate on whether Scotland should become independent.

In recent years, the procedural debate has consumed most of the attention. It is also the area on which agreement between the Scottish and UK governments is essential to ensure that Scotland has a viable path to what I call "effective independence" – that is, the establishment of a Scottish state with full powers and universal international recognition.

As we well know, however, the two governments have been stuck at an impasse on the issue of holding a new independence referendum for years – officially, since Nicola Sturgeon sought dialogue with Theresa May in March 2017. This year’s Holyrood election was the most obvious opportunity to break that impasse. Yet, no shift has occurred to date.

In fact, this dispute traces back to the 2011 Holyrood election and to a central, unresolved question: Why did the 2014 referendum happen? Because the SNP won a majority at that election and the people of Scotland, in consequence, endorsed a referendum? Or because the UK Government decided that a referendum should happen, taking into account the election but with sole discretion over the matter?

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Readers of these pages will undoubtedly favour one view over the other. The salient point is that this fundamental difference of interpretation on the sovereignty of Scotland persists to this day. It is at the heart of the impasse over a new referendum.

In his recent comments, Michael Gove perpetuates the UK Government’s standing three-part strategy since at least the May premiership. First, the UK Government contends that it is the authority which decides whether an independence referendum takes place. Second, it claims that it chooses the standards to judge whether a referendum happens. Third, it is extremely vague on what those standards are.

Attention has focused on Gove’s remark that, if the people of Scotland have a "settled will in favour of a referendum", then the UK Government will facilitate one. In reality, this position is a continuation of the same three-part strategy. In other words, if the UK Government decides at some future point that unnamed and unknown criteria are fulfilled indicating a "settled will", it will agree to an independence referendum.

Nevertheless, the UK Government’s singular strategy is not sustainable in the long run. Its lack of clarity will not suffice. Its presumption of decision-making power will not hold. Independence is the defining and unresolved question of modern Scottish politics. It will not disappear simply because Downing Street finds it inconvenient.

In particular, how could the people of Scotland possibly express their views on a referendum under the UK Government’s logic, given that the measures which Number 10 would use to determine its approach are selected at its prevailing will and, currently, secret? If elections: which elections, what criteria, what thresholds? If opinion polls: which polls, what length of time, what research design? Or some other measures yet to be revealed? Such an approach cannot work.

Given that Scotland is a democracy, short of holding a referendum itself, the only legitimate measure of the will of the people is the election of their national representatives. At present, those representatives are the members of the Scottish Parliament and the members of the House of Commons from Scotland’s constituencies. As the national legislature, the Scottish Parliament is the logical venue for national expression.

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The people of Scotland choose their representatives to speak on their behalf. They do not need the UK Government to act as some trustee and attempt to divine their wishes. They do need the UK Government to listen to their representatives and work with them. In respect of Scotland, the UK has an obligation to act in accordance with the choices of its people. While this democratic principle is apparently difficult for some in London to accept, it surely must not be difficult for them to understand.

Were Downing Street to acknowledge this principle, it would be a beneficial first step in establishing common ground between the Scottish and UK Governments and resolving the referendum impasse. Such a resolution would facilitate the bilateral cooperation vital to delivering a referendum with a prospect of effective independence, which should always remain the goal of the Scottish side.