25 January 2021

Scottish independence is not inevitable: this is going to be a fight, not a rout


A “Union in Crisis” led the Sunday Times yesterday, and it will have spoiled more mornings than mine.

The presentation was full, clear and the commentary was by those who knew whereof they wrote: while Economics Editor David Smith reminded us that London and the south-east’s “great river of cash” kept the three ‘Celtic’ nations’ public spending significantly higher than it would be, were they independent – not that a continued addiction to sucking on Mother England’s (so far) generous breast is good for either England or the Celts.

But it was, on comforting reflection, overdone.  Indeed, Paul Bew, in his commentary on the results from Northern Ireland, noted a slight increase in the pro-Union vote. And he argued that the small majority – 50.7% – for a poll on the border showed that some Unionists were voting for it on a “bring it on” basis, safe in the knowledge that the United Ireland side would lose easily. The Irish government must hope so: the addition of Ulster would be expensive, fiendish to negotiate and freighted with fears of a return to both Loyalist and Republican warfare.

The fate of Scotland is, however, the larger matter. Former chancellor George Osborne put it strongly last week in the Evening Standard, of which he is editor-in-chief, writing that Scotland’s departure:

“…would represent the end of the United Kingdom. The rest of the world would instantly see that we were no longer a front-rank power, or even in the second row. We would instead be one of the great majority of countries who are on the receiving end of the decisions made by a few, subject to the values of others. We would become another historically interesting case study in how successful nations can perform unexpected acts of national suicide.”

Osborne, now he is a newspaperman, may also be falling into the overdoing mode. Even without Scotland or Northern Ireland, England and Wales, with a joint population presently a little over 60m, would only be 7-8m behind France, and the same size as Italy (where the population is gradually shrinking, while England’s is growing by over 0.5% a year).

It’s worth, perhaps, pondering what this “rest of the UK” country could do in the world, how condemned to the second row it would really be. Worth asking too what it might do with the billions it presently spends subsidising Scotland and Northern Ireland (sums which have only increased during the pandemic).

The Nats on the rack

A still more comforting thought is that the Scottish National Party, lauded everywhere and especially by its leaders as an unstoppable, efficient and united force, is not that any longer. It’s beset by problems, some of them terribly personal.

The flourish with which, this weekend, the SNP announced their intention to defy Westminster and attempt to pave the way to a referendum, without Whitehall’s permission, after an expected big win in the Scottish elections in May, disguises a growing weakness.

They remain dominant, and are likely to achieve a big win on May 6 in the elections to the Scottish Parliamnet. But their troubles, and incoherence, grow. A decent opposition could change the field: but though the three Unionist parties will up their game, aware that the stakes are even higher than usual, the result is still likely to be a clear Nationalist win. John Curtice, don of pollsters, is presently forecasting a gain of six seats. Yet as they advance to yet another triumph, the sky is darkening over Holyrood, clouds rolling in over Arthur’s Seat. In 2021, the Scottish National Party may begin to decline.

The Alex Salmond – Nicola Sturgeon struggle over the First Minister’s role in bringing charges of sexual assault against him – he was found innocent of all – is now heating up, with demands for the release of so far closed documents. At its worst, if Sturgeon is seen to have misled the Scottish Parliament – as Salmond claims – she will face calls to resign. Readers with good memories and the right age will remember the thunderous hatred former Prime Minister Edward Heath (1970-74) bore to his successor, Margaret Thatcher (1979-90). Salmond’s is just as deep, but founded not on personal bitterness at being supplanted, as Heath’s (though the Scotsman may be turning over in his mind the possibility of a return to leadership, as the prospect of independence nears), but on allegations of serious malfeasance by Sturgeon.

The SNP’s new defiance of Westminster, by announcing its determination to set out the route for a second independence referendum, was prompted by a new radicalism within the party, most clearly signalled by recent elections to the national executive, which saw a large influx of new members from the far left. Alex Massie, among the finest of the Scots commentariat, notes that recent elections have replaced “an NEC wholly loyal to Nicola Sturgeon with one much more fundamentalist, much more left-wing, and much less wedded to the party leadership”. The most influential nationalist blog, Wings Over Scotland, was full of scorn for the latest manoeuvre, as was its readership.

The Unionists are joining forces at the top. Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown is working with Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove on the promotion of the Union. Two Scots of much advertised intelligence, both raised in windswept seaside towns (Kirkcaldy and Aberdeen)  on their nation’s east coast, should come up with something big, even if their respective Scottish parties lack both officers and foot soldiers.

Not forgetting that the economic facts remain strongly against independence. Covid, which has seen huge sums spent in all the small nations of the UK, has only increased the devolved administrations’ dependence on large subsidies. Of course, convinced nationalists will accept a reduction in living standards to gain Freedom!, as Mel Gibson would put it. But would all the new majority for independence follow?

The sense of inevitability of a UK break up is misplaced. There is a fight on, not a rout.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.