On the prospect of a second referendum

There is much speculation ahead of the SNP conference this month that a second referendum on Scottish independence is imminent. There are two women who can prevent it from happening. Neither (necessarily) wants it  – but both are too stubborn stop it.

For all her talk of preserving the Union, Theresa May’s strategy for doing so is a strange one. Nicola Sturgeon has a dilemma: hold a referendum she will probably lose, or risk giving up what may be her only chance to do so. She has offered May numerous get-outs – differential access to the single market, or devolution of immigration, or giving Holyrood a vote on the final Brexit deal – but none of them has been taken up. May’s rhetoric suggests her instincts are good – she seems to have a grasp of the issues affecting the British people. But her inability to compromise puts the Union at risk – and is not a good omen for the looming negotiations over Brexit.

But if there were to be another referendum, how has the lie of the land changed since September 2014?

The economic case for Scottish independence has demonstrably worsened. The oil price has dropped. With the rUK outside the EU, there is no longer an automatic guarantee of free movement or free trade. As the economic pain of Brexit becomes apparent, it will become apparent to Scots that the experts weren’t bluffing – many of the same experts that warned and will warn against Scottish independence. And a second referendum would only amplify the chaos and uncertainty. Greater control over the economic levers – especially immigration – would certainly have advantages. But it is unlikely that the case for independence next time round will be based on the economy.

The SNP’s best chance of winning a second referendum will be fighting a campaign on the mots du jour: “taking back control”. Though the economic prospects have somewhat deadened, a number of other changes have taken place. Scotland got a majority Conservative government it neither expected nor voted for – it voted overwhelmingly for the SNP presuming they’d play a powerful role in government, only to see them (and Scotland’s voice) sidelined. Scotland was dragged out of the EU despite decisively voting Remain. She may soon be dragged out of the European Court of Human Rights and have a “British” Bill of Rights imposed on her with only one of fifty-nine Scottish MPs in favour – just as we had the Eurosceptic political stunt of the pointless UK “Supreme Court” foisted on us with complete disregard for the separateness of jurisdictions the Act of Union is predicated on.

In addition, the No camp’s offer this time round is likely to be far less appealing. Last time round they threatened things that independence would induce, that ended up happening anyway – stories hoovered up and pointed out with glee by Stuart Campbell in his Wee Black Book. (In a gesture riven with hypocrisy, nationalists who had consistently condemned unionists for celebrating negative economic news now brimmed with Schadenfreude towards their own country.) And they made promises about what Scotland, as an equal partner in the union, could expect after a No vote that have largely failed to live up to the hype. Scots will likely be far more wary of pro-union threats and promises in an indyref2. And with 68% of Tory activists across the UK demanding no further devolution of powers be “Vow”-ed in a future referendum, Theresa May’s scope for promising anything will be severely restricted.

Further, with a populist wave throwing the world into chaos, surely we could better protect ourselves from the uncertain troubles to come if we had a fuller hand in our own destiny? Of course, the full resources of the whole UK could better protect us than our own if properly employed, but what if they are not? What if Scotland’s voice is ignored? Independence will have short-term, perhaps even long-term, economic (and other) disadvantages. But wouldn’t Scotland be better able to adapt to the challenges of the future were it not reliant on English votes to do so? If Nicola Sturgeon is to win a second referendum, such a message is her only real chance of doing so. Even then, it is unlikely she can.

Anyone predicting Scottish independence may sail to victory a-crest this populist wave is naïve for three reasons. Firstly, it has not been particularly pronounced. Brexit edged a 52-48 percent victory, a clear win but certainly not decisive. Nor did Trump surge to victory: he actually lost ground compared to Mitt Romney four years early. Barrack Obama would have beaten him in a landslide. Bernie Sanders would have beaten him in a landslide. Had the FBI not re-opened its investigation into her e-mails eleven days before the election, when she was twelve points ahead in the polls and bookies had already started paying out on her victory, Hillary Clinton would have beaten him in a landslide. The Donald only won because Hillary lost – badly!

In contrast, pro-establishment votes in Scotland in recent years have been far more decisive. Scots chose the union by a ten point margin, with the status quo winning 55-45%. Scots voted to remain in the European Union by 62-38%. In the 2016 Holyrood election, the SNP attained 46.5% of constituency votes – more than double the share of the second party – and 41.7% of the regional votes, despite having been in government for nearly a decade. It is often implied that SNP voters are idiots who have been “tricked” by the party into believing they are a radical anti-establishment party. This is nonsense. People knew fine well the SNP offered a continuation of the status quo: cautious government that keeps the country ticking over without rocking the boat. Those who voted for the SNP were consciously voting for the establishment.

On the 24th of September, when Scotland became the only nation where a majority of Labour party members, affiliates and registered supporters voted for (the relatively pro-establishment choice) Owen Smith over Jeremy Corbyn, it was swiftly concluded that a lot of left-leaning members who might be sympathetic to Corby had flitted the party and flooded into the SNP – a hypothesis backed up by polls showing Corbyn to be more popular among SNP voters than among Labour ones. This theory was cast into serious doubt however – as pointed out in the opening editorial of issue 96 of the pro-Corbyn Scottish Left Review – on the 13th of October when Angus Robertson, an arch-establishment candidate from the right of the party, won the SNP’s depute leadership contest with more than double the vote share of his nearest rival, the ex-Labour radical left-wing challenger Tommy Sheppard. Whatever way one looks at it, Scotland is objectively less anti-establishment than the rest of the UK, never mind the US, France, the Netherlands etc.

Finally, the notion that a vote for independence is the clear anti-establishment vote cannot be taken for granted. Sure, Michael Gove’s much hated “experts” are against it. But unlike Brexit, or the US election, or Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum, the people of Scotland have two establishments they can choose to kick. Of course, many on both sides will vote out of tribal loyalty to the cause. Several more will weigh up the arguments and vote according to what they feel is the best outcome for them. But a sizeable number will use the referendum as a protest vote – and it is by no means certain they’ll all be kicking the effing Tories.

For a start, Theresa May is far more popular in Scotland than Cameron. True, she is less popular here than she is in the rest of the UK (largely owing to the fact that half the population reject the very concept of a  British Prime Minister). But she is evidently more likeable. Unlike Cameron (or Osbourne or Blair), May evidently sees government, not as a career, but a calling – she is a woman of conviction, not merely of ambition. Whether or not you agree with her views, she is far easier to respect than someone who is ostensibly saying what they think you want them to. Furthermore, she is not tainted with austerity in the way that Cameron was, and is fresher in the job (and thus has less failure under her belt).

By contrast, after 10 years in power, the SNP are no longer the shining citadel they looked in 2014. At that time, even critical commentators couldn’t avoid begrudgingly shoe-horning into their polemics the obligatory boilerplate about the Scottish Government’s “competence”. It had won an outright majority (and the right to hold a referendum) off the back of a term in government which had not only delivered many populist (and popular) policies, but hugely increased Scotland’s national self-confidence. By transforming the Scottish Executive into a genuine Scottish Government, Alex Salmond’s was the first premiership to truly awaken Scots the potential of devolution. Two parliamentary terms later, the picture is not quite so rosy.

After 10 years in government, the SNP receives far less of a reputational dividend from its early accomplishments. With schools, hospitals and policing faultering, the word “competent” has disappeared from the invectives of the Scottish Government’s opponents. This is amplified by the fact that, for all her personal charm and political skill, Nicola Sturgeon is yet to achieve anything that might remotely constitute a legacy. She was widely welcomed as the human successor to Salmond’s ego, but is yet to do anything palpably radical or of remote historical significance.

Furthermore, a future referendum would almost certainly not have the convivial and effervescent atmosphere of the first one. Before 2011, despite a number of die-hards on either side of the debate, the majority of Scots had never really considered the idea that Scotland could be independent, let alone what they thought about that. 2014 was a genuine national conversation, one of the greatest democratic moments in British history – one couldn’t ride a bus, sit in a café or restaurant, or walk down a busy street without at least one conversation about the referendum being perpetually within earshot. It is precisely this excitement that the (hope-based) Yes campaign did a better job of mopping up than the (fear-based) No campaign. But a second referendum would be very different.

For one thing, people now have an opinion on independence. That opinion may change from time to time, but unlike in 2014, most Scots know at any one time what they think about the issue. Rather than the exciting national debate of 2014, we’d get the dreadful grind and animosity of the 2016 Brexit referendum. It would likely be a time of ill-will, and it is likely that ill-will will be directed towards the mongers of the plebiscite (i.e. the SNP). Further, having just had four votes in the space of just over two years, voters in Scotland are heavy with election fatigue. If they are bounced into yet another vote, they may well retaliate by voting No and giving the SNP establishment a decisive kick. For these reasons – though some things have certainly made the case for independence stronger – on balance, my prediction for a second indyref in the next few years would be an even greater victory for No.

*  *  *

Of course, assuming Kezia Dugdale remembers to push the correct button, any second referendum is contingent on support from the Greens. Those in the Scottish National Party who see their party and the independence movement as synonymous naïvely view the Scottish Green Party as the environmentalist wing of the SNP. Far from it.

Whilst independence is the raison d’être of the SNP, for the Greens it is just one issue among many. While the Nats were declaring that “the dream will never die”, the Green party were accepting the result as decisive and declaring that another independence referendum should only happen if a million people signed a petition. Though they believe (as of 7 March 2017) a second independence referendum should happen “in time“, they fought the last election on the premise that:

For the next term of the Scottish Parliament Green MSPs will focus on using existing and forthcoming powers to deliver the changes that will make a difference to the people of Scotland – on fuel poverty, land reform, funding public services and many other challenges which need to be tackled right now.

The Scottish Greens, though officially a pro-independence party, are not unified in that belief. Their voters are very split – possibly 50-50 – on the issue. (No Scottish poll speaks to enough Green voters to be definitive, but they are consistently by far the most evenly split on the constitution). Though the first referendum brought the Greens to prominence, gunning for a second one could well cost them half their hard-won base. Yet if they did agree not to vote one down, they could potentially extract some genuinely radical reforms from the SNP.  It is unlikely they would lightly choose to vote against a second referendum (which would risk alienating the other half of their base). Yet if they do vote for one, or (more likely) abstain – expect them to drive a hard bargain.


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