19 November 2018

Not even Brexit can eclipse Scotland’s independence debate


There was never, I think, any real prospect that Ruth Davidson or David Mundell would resign their positions in response to the withdrawal agreement the government has struck — for the time being anyway — with the European Union. When word emerged that Scotland’s two most prominent Tories might consider their positions, I assumed it reflected an expectation that there would be no need for them to defenestrate themselves. 

That is, Davidson and Mundell were betting that the backstop to the withdrawal agreement would, by and large, be a pan-UK backstop ensuring that there would be little to no new areas of differentiation between Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales. That line has just about held.

But, as so often, it was not the threat that was revealing but the fact that they thought it had to be made in the first place. Not everything about Brexit, you see, is actually about Brexit.  

Brexit is a complicating but still secondary issue in Scottish politics. This is one of the few things upon which everyone tacitly agrees. Here in Scotland, our Brexit arguments are not really about Brexit; they are instead proxies for other, older, arguments. Ones that have been with us for some time and will not disappear for so long as Nicola Sturgeon, and indeed her successors, draw political breath. 

Davidson’s task is to thwart the Scottish National Party. Mundell’s task is to persuade his cabinet colleagues to do as little as possible — nothing, I’m afraid, not being an option — that will make Davidson’s task more difficult. Mundell has done his best on this front but it has been hard-pounding all the way. 

As if to illustrate the extent to which, viewed from Scotland, Brexit is not actually about Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that the SNP’s 35 MPs will vote against Theresa May’s deal. That is no surprise even if, as a matter of objective reality, this increases the likelihood of a no deal Brexit the nationalists consider the worst of all possible outcomes. This, though, is typical of the through-the-looking-glass world of British politics, right now. Everything is crooked and distorted; few things can be taken at face value. 

As always, more than one thing may be true at once. Sturgeon’s suspicion that Brexit is a disaster for Britain is honestly held, but Britain’s disaster is also Scotland’s opportunity. If Brexit is a shipwreck, independence can be a lifeboat for Scotland. There is an upside to calamity, after all, and, like all her colleagues, Sturgeon appreciates that Brexit is a price worth paying if it proves to be the catalyst for independence. 

That reaction has not happened yet but the first minister still believes it will and that, once it has begun, it will prove impossible to halt, let alone reverse. Independence was “put back on the table” in June 2016, being the kind of “material change in circumstance” Sturgeon suggested could warrant a second independence referendum. Indeed, the morning after the Brexit votes had been counted Sturgeon intimated that such a plebiscite was now “highly likely”. Since then, it has never gone away. 

Indeed, Sturgeon used her appearance on Andrew Marr’s show at the weekend to confirm that she will make (yet) another announcement on a second independence referendum in “the not-too-distant future”. Independence, when push comes to shove, is more important than Brexit and the chief virtue of Brexit is that it may be leveraged to force another independence referendum. As ulterior motives go, this one hides in plain sight. 

It ensures that Sturgeon cannot be any kind of honest broker when it comes to Brexit. Nor can her manoeuvres be trusted by Scots who, while harbouring no love of Brexit, do not wish to reopen the independence can of worms. This is so even amongst those Scottish voters who accept that the difference between Scotland’s Remain vote and the UK’s decision to Leave boosts the political argument for Brexit. 

Brexit feeds into, and indeed seems to confirm, another longstanding nationalist trope: that Scotland can never receive its fair due while it remains a part of the UK. So much, the nationalists say, for all this high-faulting talk of a “partnership of equals” or a so-called “respect agenda” by which London would pay some attention to, and take some account of, the sensibilities of the devolved administrations. When rubber hits road, it’s Westminster’s way or no way at all. 

Again, there is just enough truth in this for it to be reckoned plausible and, politically at least, effective. Scotland is a victim and the only way to assert its voice is to do so as an independent nation. Circumstances change but some things are eternal and among those things is the SNP’s creedal belief that independence is always the answer, no matter the question or the circumstances in which it is asked. If it weren’t for this reason, it would be for another and so, in that sense, the precise details or justifications don’t matter very much. What matters is getting over the line; what matters is winning. We’ll decide what to do next after we’ve got there. 

If that sounds familiar, perhaps it should. It is the same calculation as that made by the Leave campaign in 2016. That campaign, like the argument for Scottish independence in 2014, was predicated on the idea that if you don’t like one particular set of answers you need not worry for another set could always be furnished and no matter if these contradicted, or were mutually exclusive to, those offered to persuade your neighbour. Independence, like Brexit, is to be all things to all people. 

Still, it cannot be avoided that the mood has changed and that, for many Scottish Unionists, the chief aim of their political life is finding ways to avoid having a second referendum many fret they might this time lose. If you do not play the game, you cannot lose so avoiding the game is the first order of business. 

The second is noting that while Brexit might make the case for independence more intuitively appealing it is also a cautionary, even exemplary, fable of what can happen when you embark on a great constitutional adventure without the means of being able to guarantee your safe arrival. If leaving the EU is this complicated — and this expensive — how difficult might unravelling the UK be?

That helps explain why the SNP have not enjoyed the Brexit bounce they — and their opponents — expected. The SNP’s push for a second referendum was intimately connected to its loss of 21 seats at last year’s general election. Since then, although the party has remained the dominant force in Scottish politics, it has not recovered its former standing. 

But if Brexit is a disaster, independence may yet be the only escape hatch. Certainly, I suspect there are few long-term optimists in Scottish Unionist circles. A Britain in which the choice is between this Conservative party and this Labour party is not a United Kingdom which can be a happy, contented, place. 

That helps explain Scottish Tory nervousness. The party fears that a differentiated Brexit — that is, one in which Northern Ireland receives a plausibly “better” Brexit than the other parts of the realm — will, in the medium to long term, assist the SNP’s cause. Avoiding that then becomes a matter of considerable importance. 

In point of fact, however, I suspect this is one area in which the Tories should probably be prepared to tough it out. I am not persuaded that the argument Northern Ireland is receiving unfair advantages that put Scotland at a competitive disadvantage is one that will prove persuasive in middle Scotland. That reflects, I think, the acceptance that Northern Ireland really is a different place where different rules do — and must — apply. In the absence of a “bespoke” deal for Scotland — an idea that is not flying yet, not least because the EU have shown no interest in accommodating it — we are then treated to this irony: it is the SNP, ordinarily champions of differentiation, who demand uniformity. 

Still, complications abound and Tory fortunes in Scotland are inextricably linked to those of the SNP. The more the nationalists push for independence, the more the Tories become the natural or most persuasive home for those voters who believe stopping the SNP is more important than charting Brexit. If the SNP kept quiet about independence, the rationale for the Scottish Tory revival would be somewhat undermined. It is the SNP, not the Conservative party, which keeps the Tories afloat in Scotland. (Indeed senior Scottish Tories believe the party was hurt by May’s hapless campaign last year and that the Brexit shambles further imperils the party’s prospects in Scotland. This was supposed to be a time when the party was going to be busy demonstrating its readiness for government at Holyrood; Brexit has sunk that plan too.)

That leaves Ruth Davidson — currently on maternity leave which, in the present circumstances is, if one may be gauche about this, politically convenient — to argue for the least damaging Brexit. “It’s rubbish but we’ve got to make the best of it” is not a rallying call for the ages but it is where the Scottish Tories find themselves right now. Brexit is akin to cutting off your leg but there is no need to compound that blunder by removing an arm via independence. 

As a practical and economic matter that is an argument with some force but it is not one that can be relied upon forever. At some point other considerations come into play. Politics is a game of feelings, not just numbers. All things being equal, I have long believed that there can be a majority for independence. The difficulty, for the nationalists, is that things have not yet reached the stage of being equal. Brexit, however, may yet do the job for them. And if there is one thing upon which Unionists and nationalists agree it is that this is a long, long, game in which the former must always prevail but the latter need only win once. 

Alex Massie is a political commentator.