Last year I spent a fraught 48 hours liveblogging the Scottish Parliament election. The stakes could scarcely have been higher: if Nicola Sturgeon finally managed to emulate her predecessor and win an overall majority at Holyrood, it would give her bid for a second independence referendum a serious shot in the arm.
Fortunately, the dread hour never arrived. Despite a campaign which had been widely criticised – not least by me – it was Douglas Ross who matched the performance of his previous leader. By holding on to the Conservatives’ record haul of 31 seats, he helped to ensure the First Minister fell just short.
As a result, Scottish nationalism is now in some difficulty. It is no closer to finding persuasive answers on the key questions about how an independent Scottish state would function, such as the currency.
Worse for the Nats, the Government feels under no pressure to bow to Sturgeon’s demands for another referendum. Without such a poll to energise and unite the separatist coalition, the SNP’s woeful record in domestic government is slowly going to wear it down.
At this moment there is perhaps only one man who can rescue the Nationalists from this dangerous impasse. But he isn’t an SNP man. Nor even is he Boris Johnson, who’s fabled unpopularity north of the border has failed to move the dial on separation in the manner so widely predicted.
No, the man trying to lead a one-man cavalry charge to the SNP’s rescue is Gordon Brown. In a baffling intervention this week, he accused the Conservatives of being ‘scared’ of a second referendum, breezily asserting that any such vote could be won with his proposals for a ‘reformed United Kingdom’.
For a purported unionist, it really is an extraordinary proposition. For starters, the undoing of David Cameron in 2016 (and the much closer than expected result in 2014, come to that) ought to have disabused politicians of the notion that referendums can be called lightly. The SNP might not have a plausible case for independence, but in voters’ minds its plausibility would be boosted by the very fact of the Government granting them a(nother) referendum on it.
Then there’s the question of the precedent this decision would set. The SNP haven’t got a Holyrood majority and there is no public demand, overwhelming or otherwise, for putting this question to the voters again less than a decade after the last occasion.
Concede a referendum now and, win or lose, ministers will have handed the Nationalists a precious prize: the principle that the fate of the Union can be frequently and endlessly relitigated until they get the answer they want.
It should also go without saying that breezy assertions about winning such a vote on the basis of proposals for a ‘reformed UK’ should be taken with not just a pinch, but a pillar of salt.
Not only do such questions allow voters to project whatever they want into the promise of change, but it also neglects to consider either whether or not such changes are desirable in themselves or the long-term impact they might have on the structural soundness of the United Kingdom.
I know this because I was there in 2019 when Brown told a room full of unionist activists that if ‘Devo Max’ had been on the ballot paper in 2014, support for ‘No’ would have been much higher than the 55% it won on the day. At no point were the serious (and in my view, dire) implications of devo-max for the future of Britain even mentioned – his thinking extended no further than padding the margin of victory over the other side.
What Brown appears not to recognise is that there is a difference between winning a referendum and saving the Union. Yet not only is it perfectly possible to buy short-term success at steep long-term constitutional cost, but that is actually devolutionary unionism’s entire modus operandi!
But perhaps the emphasis on radical change betrays his real motivations: if you’re in the business of hawking quack cures to the threat of separatism, you need a separatist menace to frighten your customers. A world in which the SNP simply aren’t strong enough to break up Britain is one in which Brown doesn’t get to be a hero, doesn’t get to remake the UK and doesn’t get to re-write his place in the history books.
Brown, like the rest of devolution’s guilty men, can’t admit he was wrong. Ministers should scorn his blandishments, and not allow him to bet the fate of the nation on one last ego-salving roll of the dice.
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