13 March 2017

Whoever wins this second referendum, Scotland loses


Oh Lord, not again. The reality of a second independence referendum – of the prolonged, furious and divisive punch-up that inevitably lies ahead – sends my heart plummeting to my boots.

The muscle memory remains from last time: shouting matches with friends and family, being called a traitorous **** by anonymous strangers with pseudonyms such as @saoralba1314 or @Tam4FREEDOM, the rise to prominence of some thoroughly dislikeable people (on both sides), the terrible, terrible songs. The poetry. My god, the poetry. The actual, real physical stress of the whole bloody thing.

Regardless, we’re going again. At Bute House this morning, Nicola Sturgeon announced that she intends to hold a referendum at some point between autumn 2018 and spring 2019.

Ignore the stuff about her still being willing to reconsider if the British government compromises on Brexit – that’s just talk. Nothing Theresa May can do would be good enough; and anyway, it doesn’t look like she wants to do much. So unless the PM point-blank refuses to let Ms Sturgeon go ahead – a tempting thought, but it would probably lead to a constitutional crisis – it’s happening.

My immediate response is: poor Scotland. Our governance, never the most courageous or radical at the best of times, will largely grind to a halt as every sinew is diverted towards winning the referendum, just as Brexit has overrun Whitehall.

Every policy decision will be seen through the prism of what it might mean for the result. There will be a flurry of manufactured grievances. The bullshit-o-meter will be turned up to 11. I’ll have to listen to and look at Alex Salmond again – what did I do to deserve that?

And, as I’ve written in today’s Financial Times, who is there to lead the campaign for the creaking old Union? There are precious few heroes kicking around. Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown are off the scene and can only be bit players. Corbyn’s an unspeakable calamity. May’s a scary and stern southern Tory. Even David Bowie’s gone.

In Scotland itself, Labour is abject, and languishes in third place behind the Conservatives. The only possible standard-bearer is Ruth Davidson. And for all that she’s popular, clever and effective, she is nevertheless a Tory, and still in the process of rejuvenating the party’s long-toxic brand.

Why now? Well, the First Minister, with breathtaking casuistry, insists that Scotland should make its choice once the outcome of the Brexit negotiations is clear. But that is, of course, only one part of the package – it gives us no time to look at what comes next for the UK, the replacement deals, the evolving nature of its economy and society, the evolution of the EU, before us Scots have to make what will this time surely be a final and irrevocable decision.

She’s rushing us, because she thinks that gives her the best chance of winning: while all is chaos and uncertainty, with the UK’s reputation at a global low, when the economic predictions are at their most gloomy, and with, as she put it today, the Tories looking like they’ll be in No 10 till 2030.

The Nats have done their prep work and covered the angles. Ms Sturgeon is a much more attractive and conciliatory salesperson than was the toadish Mr Salmond. She promises a “frank” evaluation of an independent Scotland’s prospects, the lack of which did them so much damage in 2014.

She says that at a moment as definitive as Brexit, it is not for her, one politician, to decide Scotland’s future, it is for the Scottish people: a great line. And the separatists hope the “take back control” mood that drove Brexit will equally persuade Scottish voters to overlook the very real economic challenges of an independent state in favour of a vote based on culture, place and power.

Who’ll ultimately win? Haven’t a clue. At this stage, I don’t even know how I’ll vote. But I’m clear about one thing: for the next couple of years, Scotland loses.

Chris Deerin is Director of External Relations at the Blavatnik School of Government