2 February 2017

A second Scottish referendum is now an inevitability


Michael Fallon, the Perth-born, St Andrews educated, defence secretary is not the first Conservative cabinet minister to come to Scotland with his foot in his mouth and nor will he be the last.

Nevertheless, his suggestion, made in an interview with the Herald, that the Scottish government has no mandate to hold another referendum on independence and that, indeed, they can “forget” the idea of being allowed to, is the kind of intervention Scottish Tories consider distinctly “unhelpful”. The SNP are masters at manufacturing grievance but there is no need to hand them one already gift-wrapped.

No wonder Fallon rowed back from his comments in an interview with Radio Scotland this morning. If he did not know before, he knows now that they will be used against him, his party, and his government, for months to come. The arrogance! The impertinence! The add-your-preferred-pejorative-description of these blasted Tories! Don’t they know Scotland won’t take this kind of thing any longer?

Well, perhaps. The truth of the matter is that the 2014 referendum never ended and its result has been compromised anew by the Brexit referendum. Opposition parties in Scotland cannot avoid returning to the constitutional issue again and again, even as they insist the SNP should cease agitating for a second independence plebiscite.

The suggestion that the Scottish government is avoiding its real responsibilities while it agitates for another referendum is often made, but isn’t quite fair. The day-to-day work of government continues: this week it announced more money to help schools improve the performance of pupils from Scotland’s least wealthy communities. But there remains a palpable sense that everything is on hold until such time as its constitutional status is settled once and for all.

In truth, no-one has been able to move on from 2014. The question is not so much whether there will be another referendum – but when it will take place. Brexit has changed everything, upending the assumptions of nationalists and Unionists alike. Absent Brexit, the case for a second plebiscite would be all but untenable. SNP ministers spent 2014 noting that the referendum held then was a “once in a lifetime” or at least a “once in a generation” opportunity to win independence. Vote Yes now, because there might not be a second chance.

But the SNP fought last year’s Holyrood election on a manifesto promising to consider another referendum if there were a “material change” in Scotland’s circumstances. One such change was used to illustrate the argument.

If, for instance, the UK were to vote to leave the EU but Scotland voted to remain a member then, the SNP argued, another referendum might be both justified and necessary. And though the SNP lost its majority in that election the nationalists remain Scotland’s dominant political party and, in any case, with the support of the Green party, most MSPs in Edinburgh support independence.

So though a second cabinet minister told the Herald the SNP “don’t have a mandate” for another referendum, the fact remains they do. It is not of their making, but it exists. This is why Ruth Davidson has generally taken the view that while the SNP could press for another referendum, they should not.

This has the considerable merit of being a popular position. Recent polls suggest fewer than a third of Scots think a second referendum prudent in the current circumstances. A fresh bout of constitutional upheaval is less appealing in the aftermath of Brexit.

No wonder the Scottish government is exploring all its options. This is a matter of purchasing time and space. The political argument for independence might be stronger now than it was in 2014 but the economic argument is considerably weaker. The Scottish government’s own figures demonstrate that Scotland runs a deficit of more than eight percent of GDP. That is, in the longer-run, unsustainable as an independent nation.

Moreover, if leaving the EU is, as Sturgeon says, an act of extraordinary economic self-harm, then leaving the UK must be like protesting the loss of a hand by cutting off your other arm and, just for good measure, a leg too. Scotland sells four times as much to the rest of the UK as it does to the EU.

Which is why SNP ministers insist that common sense and economic self-interest would ensure that there need be no hard border between a putatively independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. A hard border makes independence an even tougher sell. But if Scotland sought to be a member of the EU it would necessarily be bound by the EU’s trading relationship with the UK and find itself unable to negotiate a bespoke set of arrangements.

That explains why so much SNP attention is being focused on the Northern Irish example. If the UK and the Republic of Ireland can come to a frictionless arrangement post-Brexit then, they say, there is no good reason why a similar arrangement could not be made for the Anglo-Scottish border.

On one level, this seems initially plausible even if it too blithely assumes that the particular circumstances of the Irish situation are transferable to the Scottish dimension. But, in any case, what if no such Irish arrangement can be achieved?

This leaves Unionists who have an eye on the long-game in an invidious position. The cost of easing matters in Northern Ireland is making them more difficult in Scotland. Conversely, securing Scotland might require shafting Northern Ireland’s economic interests. You can have one, but not both. It is not yet clear the UK government appreciates this but, at some point, it will.

So these are muddy waters. I continue to think a second Scottish referendum called in response to Brexit would be unwise until such time as the consequences of Brexit are understood. But this is, I concede, a view which is not universally-shared in Scotland.

However, the more often Sturgeon warns that another referendum is more likely than ever – and this is issued on a twice-weekly basis – the harder it is for her to keep a lid upon rising nationalist expectations. At present, too, the polls have proved stubbornly obstructive. There has been no prolonged Brexit bounce for the Yes side. Instead, there has been an element of churn with, in the main, some middle-class Remainers looking more favourably on independence and some, in the main, working-class Leavers who voted Yes in 2014, rethinking their enthusiasm for independence.

Though the million Scots who voted Leave are often forgotten, at least a third of them are habitual SNP supporters.

Sturgeon, however, has more than one strategy to deploy. “Dragging” Scotland out of the EU “against its will” might be an outrage but if that does not move you other outrages are available. EU membership is not the only ball in play.

As Sturgeon said last month, “Is Scotland content for our future to be dictated by an increasingly Right-wing Westminster government?” Or, instead: “is it better that we take our future into our own hands? It is becoming ever clearer that this is a choice that Scotland must make.”

If this seems familiar, that’s because it is. This is an old, old, tune but one that has proved popular in the past. It is a 21st century rendition of a 20th century argument that persuaded Scots devolution was the best means of “protecting” the country against the ravages of unpopular, unwanted, Tory governments.

Of course, you need an unpopular, unwanted Tory government for it to work and, in this respect at least, Theresa May seems minded to oblige Sturgeon. So, evidently, is Jeremy Corbyn. His hopeless haplessness gifts Downing Street to the Conservatives for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, if Corbyn makes it to 2020 he may lead Labour to the kind of defeat from which it takes two elections to recover. That in turn puts the Tories in power until 2030. No wonder the SNP are keen to see Corbyn survive. He is their most useful idiot.

That, in turn, raises the prospect of a second independence referendum some time after the 2021 Scottish parliament elections. If, that is, pro-independence parties win a majority of seats at that election. That is one possible future – and one that might yet prove more attractive to the SNP than a snap poll called in 2018 or 2019.

But for as long as she can keep her options open, and keep the plates spinning, Nicola Sturgeon will do so.

Alex Massie is a political commentator