With the depressing announcement that another independence referendum is probably on its way, I offer a few thoughts on its likely impact on our politics.
* * *
Make no mistake, we are heading for a period of acrimony and division. The last referendum was a genuinely exhilarating time, when a nation that largely hadn’t considered its constitutional condition for centuries was suddenly awash with debate about its future. Today, people already know where they stand on the issue of independence – their opinion may change, but at any one time they know how they feel about it. For this reason, indyref2 – like Brexit – is far more likely to be a collective screaming match than another exciting “national conversation”.
If your only source of information was Twitter, you could convince yourself that Scotland is currently undergoing a civil war. In reality, our country is far from “Ulsterised”. But a second referendum will turn what was for the majority of Scots merely a decision last time into a durable identity – which will not be healthy for our already toxic politics.
Our politics has turned dangerous. The parliament of 2007-2011 (when the SNP had a minority government) comported itself in an atmosphere of cautious yet respectable camaraderie. Post-referendum, the SNP, the Tories and the Labour party are embroiled in a triangle of loathing that is not good for Scotland. In February last year, the SNP voted against presumed consent for organ donation, a policy they agreed with, purely out of fear of Labour getting the credit – then later had the cheek to complain when the Tories did the same to them at Westminster over pardoning gay men. This year, both Labour and the Tories were prepared to bring down a government that received 45% of the vote, less than a year into its stewardship, over the trivial matter of an unexciting budget.
Labour demanded a radical (and unrealistic) compromise of a massive tax hike, which the third-largest party had no mandate to do. The Conservatives were even pettier with their red lines, risking a democratic crisis for the sake of a few hundred pounds for the richest ten percent. Ironically, it was the Greens – by general consent the least realistic party represented in our parliament – who brokered the pragmatic deal that saved our system from collapse. We currently have First-Past-the-Post politics in an Additional-Member-System system – this is neither healthy, nor sustainable.
As far as a second referendum goes, the obvious beneficiaries are the Tories. As much as they feign outrage at Sturgeon’s decision, there is nothing the Ruth Davidson party would love more than the opportunity to distract people from that the fact that they’re the Tories by banging on about the constitution for the next 2-3 years. The more they can stand up for the clear decision Scots made in 2014, the less they have to come up with Tory policies in order to win their way into government.
Where Labour is concerned, they are missing a trick by laying the blame for indyref2 solely at the door of the SNP. For all their grandstanding about being the true defenders of the Union, the Tories have no legitimate right to take offence at Sturgeon’s pronouncement. It is Theresa May’s inability to negotiate that has (partly) bounced us into this referendum, and by pointing that out Labour could easily make gains amongst the anything-but-the-constitution part of the electorate. There is a chance that Labour could grasp the opportunity for revival that this referendum offers them. But it is far more likely they will blunder themselves into irrelevance.
The SNP have a lot to lose and almost nothing to gain. In fairness, they are already in decline. This may be the last parliament for a long time with a pro-independence majority – so it is understandable that they would choose to take a punt now when they’ll probably lose rather than wait for the best time to carp from the sidelines. Indyref2 will certainly provide a distraction from Nicola Sturgeon’s inability to achieve anything more in politics than popularity and selfies. And it is true that, the Tory government having dismissed opportunity after opportunity to compromise their way out of indyref2, Sturgeon has been backed into a corner. Yet the SNP have little to gain and everything to lose from this referendum, and it should be seen more as the last desperate act of a nationalist government in its death throes than a genuine threat to the future of the UK.
Of all the parties, the Greens have taken the biggest gamble. Though constitutionally a pro-independence party, up to half of their voters aren’t – seeing them primarily as a nice, anti-establishment party for whom sovereignty is not the be-all and end-all of their politics. If independence is achieved, they will be redeemed for their gamble. If not, they could well be annihilated.
As for Willie Rennie’s Lib Dems – Brexit has given the Liberal Democrats new impetus as the party of Remain; if indyref2 makes them definitively the party of Remain+No, that impetus could well be fatally diluted.