Credit: Kenneth Halley via Wikipedia License: CC BY-SA 4.0

The stuttering campaign for Scottish Independence

It is sometimes forgotten that, in the end, the Scottish Independence referendum of 2015 was not especially close. Though there were fevered predictions in the days before the vote of a nailbiter, in the end, Scots voted to keep their Kingdom in the union by a convincing margin of 55.3% to 44.7%. In raw votes, the gap was over 400,000.

It is also worth recalling that in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum a year later, there were almost universal predictions, especially on this side of the Irish Sea, that a Scottish Independence referendum would be held again, and would, second time around, cruise to victory. Some commentators, whose blushes we will spare here, went so far as to say that such a thing was inevitable.

And perhaps, with yesterday’s grand announcement by Nicola Sturgeon of a second “consultative” referendum which she hopes, with the permission of the courts, to hold in October 2023, might give those pundits a little hope. It probably shouldn’t.

Sturgeon’s announcement, at the end of the day, comes from a place of weakness, not strength. One of the SNP’s problems is that by seeking Westminster sanction for the first vote in 2015 they implicitly legitimised the idea that for such a referendum to be legitimate, it must be agreed to as legitimate by London. Indeed, the Scottish Unionist attitude to any “unofficial” referendum will be – as they have publicly stated – simply to boycott it and refuse to participate. On that, the majority in Westminster (whether that Majority be Tory or Labour) will support them. The SNP’s best hope for a second referendum remains that Labour emerges from the next UK election with enough seats to form a Government only with SNP support. And that prospect, of course, may harm Labour in England.

The other problem that Sturgeon has is that there is simply no evidence that the views of Scots have shifted enough to guarantee victory, even in a legitimate, Westminster sanctioned referendum. If you don’t believe me, Wikipedia have a good collection of the most recent polls on the question here. If anything, support for Scottish independence might be weaker now than it was in 2015. The most recent one, from Survation, shows the “stay in the UK” side with a 14 point lead – 52% to 38%.

All of which poses the question of “why now?” for Sturgeon.

One reason, you might suspect, is that like all politicians, she sees her chance to make history slipping. She has presided over SNP Government in Scotland now for almost a decade. The SNP itself has been in power there for much longer. To a large extent, the failings of that Government (and all Governments will fail) have been obscured by the ability to blame the evil Tories in Westminster for Scotland’s problems. But even that doesn’t wash, forever. The SNP has full control over the Scottish Health and Education systems, for example, and neither have become world-beating examples of good public administration during Sturgeon’s tenure. If she doesn’t get Independence over the line in the next few years, then her chances at going down in history as the mother of the Scottish nation become vanishingly remote.

The other problem is the tiresomeness of the independence debate itself. It is a debate, after all, with a pre-written conclusion. Every time Sturgeon calls for a debate, or a review, or a discussion, the outcome is inevitable: The SNP can hardly commission a report or start a debate on independence that does not have the pre-written conclusion that independence is good.

The biggest problem, though, might be this: That far from weakening the Union with England and Wales and Northern Ireland, Brexit actually strengthened it. That, of course, is a heresy that is borderline unspeakable in polite company, especially on this island. But there’s a good argument that it is true:

Consider, for example, all the focus on the Northern Ireland border, and all the problems Brexit has created there. Why would Scots want to go through that again, but this time for the border with England? SNP policy remains joining the EU and the single market, UK policy remains staying out. An independent Scotland in the EU would therefore have a hard border with England. That’s a case that the pro-Indy campaigners did not have to answer in 2015, and would have to answer today. “Scexit” would actually have been a lot easier, and more painless, in the EU. Oh well.

Look at Sturgeon’s announcement yesterday, and you don’t really get a sense of urgency, or momentum. You get a sense of a politician going through the motions, performing a role for her most hardcore supporters, and resigning herself to seeing out her days as leader of one of the four nations of the UK, rather than an independent country. On this one, I fear, the Irish consensus post Brexit might have been wrong.


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