15 March 2017

Scottish independence is now about identity, not policy


Earlier this month, an Ipsos-Mori poll for STV reported that 50 per cent of Scots would vote for independence if there were an opportunity to do so. Unionists greeted that survey with something akin to shivering dread; it seemed to be both a warning from history and a presentiment from the future. The future survival of the United Kingdom seemed, once again, in the balance.

This morning, a YouGov poll for The Times suggested that just 43 per cent would do so. Panic over! The Union is safe! Or, at least, safer than it has seemed for some time. There is less to scare you than you thought and all, as a man once said, there is to fear is fear itself. Verily, what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts.

There will be much more of this in the months – and years – ahead, as we lurch, uncertainly, from one extreme to another.

Until recently, I confess, I had thought it more likely than not that caution would win the day and that Nicola Sturgeon would find a way of avoiding a second referendum – in the short term, at least. The risks of a second defeat seemed too great and the path to eventual victory too cluttered with obstacles. Brexit might have made independence more urgent than ever, but it also made achieving it more difficult.

But having put a second referendum “on the table” the morning after the UK voted to leave the European Union, Sturgeon could not easily take it off the table and file it away in a drawer. As Chekhov put it, “one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off”. The referendum is Sturgeon’s gun.

The timing – and thus the maintenance of suspense – still matters. Theresa May’s government is toying with the idea of playing hardball. It believes David Cameron ceded too much ground to the SNP in the run-up to the first referendum, giving the Scottish government too much influence over the timing and framing of the referendum question.

It is not minded to make the same mistake this time around. Indeed, it is exploring how it might postpone a referendum until after the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections.

According to this view, the SNP should be made to win an explicit mandate for a second plebiscite; without that endorsement, there are no grounds for holding a referendum. It is a proposal that has been tested in focus groups, and that has scored better than you might think.

And the YouGov poll offers some support: 42 per cent of Scottish voters think the UK government should not allow a second referendum and an even greater proportion – 53 per cent – think the Scottish government should not spend the next two years campaigning for independence.

On the face of it, then, these are less than propitious circumstances for a fresh tilt at national emancipation. A promise was made in 2014 that the referendum would be a “once in a generation” opportunity to rethink Scotland’s constitutional order; breaking that pledge so soon, even in the face of a Brexit-sized provocation, comes at some cost.

It rankles, accounting for the dismay and the anger with which this week’s constitutional manoeuvres have been greeted. Must we really do this again? And so soon?

Evidently so. Delaying a referendum until such time as the detail of Britain’s Brexit deal is known makes sense. It is neither unfair nor unreasonable. Delaying it longer, however, risks a Scottish backlash as referendum-sceptics react badly to what would easily be presented – and understood – as English or Westminster bullying. We are not Catalonia and you are not Spain, you know.

Nonetheless, this is not the place from which Sturgeon would have chosen to start. Brexit complicates life horribly. That helps explain why the SNP has repeatedly floated the idea of seeking a Norway-style relationship with the EU rather than full-fat membership if Scotland voted Yes.

That would allow, in theory at any rate, for the best of both worlds: membership of the single market but still permitting a deal to be done with what’s left of the UK.

Admittedly, this is awkward too, not least because solving one problem – the Anglo-Scottish frontier – merely creates another. It is one thing to demand a referendum because Scotland is being “dragged out” of the EU; quite another to then argue that an independent Scotland wouldn’t actually seek to rejoin the EU.

The alternative, however, is a tougher border at the Tweed and Solway: the prospect of passport controls between Scotland and England remains one of the highest-ranking cards the Union can play.

Even so, polling also reveals how facts are permeable creatures these days. Overall, according to YouGov, 40 per cent of Scots say the UK market is the country’s most important bazaar and 40 per cent think the EU market is most vital to Scotland. (In reality, Scotland sells four times as much to England as it does to the EU.) In other words, everything is contested and truth is a moveable feast.

And if the most pressing and imminent practical concerns appear to favour the Union – and this before we even mention the prospect of an annual deficit amounting to 10 per cent of GDP, or ask impertinent questions about the currency to be used in an independent Scotland – it remains the case that deeper currents favour the nationalists. There has been a steady realignment of Scottish politics and it has benefited the SNP.

The latest iteration of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey – the gold standard of such enterprises – confirms this. Twice as many Scots support independence as did an actual generation ago. This new tilt at history begins with 46 per cent of Scots on board.

This is the new reality and it is not likely to change soon, not least since it is a question of identity as much as it is one of policy. As John Curtice, the boffin’s psephological boffin, notes, “nationalism in Scotland has never seemed to be in finer fettle” since “people’s views about independence in Scotland now reflect their sense of national identity to a greater extent than ever before”.

The Scots are less British and more Scottish than ever. North Britons are not yet an endangered species, but their numbers are falling. The first referendum made constitutional politics the only game in town – and for all that the Tories are recovering, the dice remain loaded in the SNP’s favour.

The referendum is a mighty gamble nonetheless, and one that must end badly for either the First Minister or the Prime Minister. It begins, however, as a tussle between the economic facts of contemporary life and the great march of history.

The immediacy and intractability of policy problems and process issues might favour the Union; the longer, larger game offers greater support to the nationalists. Both sides are on trial; both have more questions to answer than they have answers to present.

Somewhere in the midst of this divide between policy and principle, between uncertainty and opportunity, the battles for Scotland – and for Britain – will be won and lost.

Alex Massie is a political commentator