What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
Scottish independence is back in the news cycle again. It never really left, but every once in a while the issue flares up once more after another promising poll, Westminster cock-up and SNP landslide. Although it brings me no pleasure to write about, I feel like for the sake of expectation management we need to be realistic and accept that the developments of the last month or so have very little bearing on the already slim chances of a second referendum being held within the next decade.
So what’s gone down recently that has meant that Indyref2 is doing the rounds on the front pages once more? Ultimately it boils down to the polls and the pressure they have exerted on politicians on either side of the independence fence. We’re still months out from the Scottish Parliament elections, but what is undoubtedly clear at this stage is that support for Yes has established a firm, consistent lead in the polls that is emboldening supporters and has unionists quaking in their red, white and blue boots. There is a palpable sense of excitement in the air that I don’t think has been felt for some time, and just last month Boris scrambled up to Scotland on an emergency mission to try and save the union in what was supposedly an ‘essential’ visit.
It’s not just Boris feeling the pinch however. Sturgeon sits at the helm of a party focused around achieving the end of an independent Scotland, but behind the united front rumbles a heated conflict between two factions that have always struggled to reconcile their differences on the means of getting there. On the side of Nicola you have the gradualists who believe Scotland will eventually win independence through a cautious, step-by-step approach that earns the trust of the Scottish people before pursuing separation, while the other wing of the party – the fundamentalists – are of the opinion that independence can’t wait, and that the party needs to strike while the iron is hot.
Most of the time the fundamentalists have a hard time winning over any substantial support, but it’s precisely times like these where their voices become a whole lot harder to ignore and ruptures begin to form in the party line. Sturgeon has always favoured biding her time and has previously called seeking consent from Westminster for a referendum the “gold standard of democracy and fairness”, but it’s looking increasingly like she’s having to throw a bone to appease those who feel like the time is now to seek another poll on independence – with or without the go-ahead from Westminster.
So that’s largely why the subject of independence has arisen once more. Westminster has continued to say no, and a sizeable portion of the SNP have decided that the Scottish government should take matters into its own hands. Now Nicola has laid out a new roadmap – a legal route to holding a referendum without the say so of Westminster. It goes like this: pass a bill to hold a referendum in the Scottish parliament regardless, and then prepare to fight the inevitable legal challenge by the UK government all the way to the newly established Supreme Court.
This is a far cry from the “gold standard” vote we saw back in 2014. The union is a reserved matter for the Westminster government, so in order for Holyrood to pass any bills on a reserved issue it needs to seek what’s known as a section 30 order, which was granted in the Edinburgh agreement back in 2012 by David Cameron. 2014 was a landmark democratic exercise, where we saw the coming together of the country for a debate on our future that both sides were eager to partake in. For any referendum to be successful I think that’s absolutely fundamental: that both sides consent to the national conversation taking place.
It would be the mother of all understatements to say that a lot has changed since then. Looking back, it’s difficult to even account for the distance we have covered politically since that fateful vote. In short order we’ve seen the comings and goings of many party leaders, a hugely divisive referendum on the EU and a consolidation of power both North and South of the border – not to mention Covid-19. Miliband, The Coalition, Cameron, May and Corbyn have all been consigned to the dustbin of history in the space of just 6 and a half years. Of all these events, by far the most relevant to the question of Scotland going it alone must be Brexit.
To cut a very long story short, Scotland holds a different opinion towards Europe than the rest of the UK, and we’ve been yanked out of the bloc very much against our will. This stings all the more due to the fact that EU membership was such a foregrounded issue back in 2014, where the Better Together campaign really tried to drum up fears that voting for independence would jeopardise our membership of the EU. The swing we’ve seen in the polls since can partially be explained by a huge proportion of remain voters who voted no but have been converted to the independence cause largely out of a feeling of betrayal.
The vote to leave the EU constitutes what the SNP have come to term “a material change in circumstance” that renders the 2014 vote null and void. The No vote was in some part predicated on a large number of voters believing that should they vote Yes we would be evicted from the EU, only for that to happen anyway just two years later. It outlined for many what nationalists have been trying to emphasise for decades: that Scotland suffers from a democratic deficit – that what we have to say doesn’t matter. This stretches all the way from Thatcher’s Poll Tax to Brexit to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, and I believe it’s the most powerful argument for Scotland going its own way.
The party line that the Tory government have stuck to (first with May and now with Johnson) is that – regardless of Brexit and Scotland’s disagreement with it – the independence vote was a “once in a generation” event that is not to be repeated anytime soon. In fact perhaps the only political constant these 6 and a half unprecedented years has been the stubborn insistence by Westminster that Scotland should not be allowed another vote. To explain why this is the case it’s worth looking back at the reasons Cameron even agreed to one in the first place back in 2012.
When it comes to votes on independence, it seems to be a concrete truth that they’re only ever granted if the opportunities of doing so far outweigh the risks. If we picture things from Cameron’s perspective back in 2012, support for independence was hovering at 30%, and the chance to deliver a death blow to the independence movement was probably too tasty to pass up on. He didn’t actually think it would be a close contest, but Cameron will hardly be someone remembered for his accurate risk judgement now, will he? This is the same reason we now find ourselves out of the EU: a referendum was an opportunity to finally defeat the Tory Eurosceptic wing. Neither referendum paid off in the way Cameron intended, but they were always granted on the initial grounds of opportunism – that’s politics for you.
Contrast and compare Scotland’s position to Catalonia. A big reason Catalonia hasn’t been able to secure a vote on going it alone is ultimately because the Spanish government fears that it would lose such a vote. And that’s why Westminster won’t grant a referendum to us now. It doesn’t matter how much we want one, in fact paradoxically the more Scots want a second poll the less likely it will be that any Prime Minister will grant us one. This is the sticky situation we find ourselves in.
So Westminster isn’t going to budge. You could argue that Boris can’t afford not to listen to Scottish voters especially when the SNP are on track for a stomping result in the coming Scottish Parliament elections this May, but as far as permitting a referendum goes virtually all the cards lie in his hands. Again, herein lies the irony of the SNP’s ongoing success: the Tories have nothing left to lose. Even if you took away their measly 6 Scottish seats they would still hold an iron grip on power at Westminster. Scotland is an electoral irrelevance to the Conservative party at this point, and they treat it as such. Parties will always cater their agenda to their voter base, and for the Tories that means Middle England and the Shires.
With Labour posing so little a threat it’s hard to consider how any meaningful change in the electoral map can take place for a long time to come. We’ve seen back in 2015 with Miliband how even a whiff of a Labour/SNP coalition terrified English voters, and Cameron miraculously emerged with a majority. I don’t think enough has changed since that point that the Tories wouldn’t just pull the same trick again and roll out a new advert, this time with Starmer tucked tightly into Sturgeon’s front pocket instead. That’s a powerful image that holds real sway over English voters, and with Labour a full 123 seats short of a majority it seems highly improbable that Downing Street will be changing hands anytime soon.
So we find ourselves at a constitutional stalemate. Support for Scottish Independence is the highest it’s ever been, and yet Westminster has doubled down on the “once in a generation” line – it’s a Mexican standoff with little chance of a resolution anytime soon. There are some on the fundamentalist wing of the SNP that want to pull out the gambit of a unilateral referendum without the consent of the UK government, but I really feel this would just do more damage than good. There’s a reason why Sturgeon has always favoured caution in her approach .
If such a vote were held, it would almost certainly be boycotted by unionists as they have indicated. The surest way to torpedo the legitimacy of any referendum result is if one side refuses to take part (see: Venice’s referendum on autonomy in 2019 or Bosnia’s back in 1992). Again, if we look back at what made 2014 a success it’s fundamental that both sides agree to take part, otherwise it’s just half the country nodding their heads in agreement without it being compared against anything. Say such a hasty referendum was even won, where would that leave us? Scotland’s international credibility as a newly independent nation would be in serious doubt, which would jeopardise our otherwise decent chance of re-joining the EU – the whole reason we want another vote in the first place.
Sturgeon’s new roadmap is frankly just a unilateral referendum with extra steps. The added buzz seems to be around the idea that fighting and winning a legal battle would afford the vote a stamp of authority, but there’s two possibilities we need to consider from this approach, and neither of them are good news for those of us who want an independent Scotland.
The first, and most likely, is that the legal battle fails. This would genuinely be catastrophic for the Yes movement; it would be an even bigger set back than losing Indyref1. Unionist-led local authorities would then have an indefinite legal mandate to refuse to cooperate on the logistics of any future vote called by the Scottish government, along with there being no legal procedures for controlling spending or the campaign generally. Is that a risk we really want to take? It would send the dream of independence into the legal backwaters for far longer than had we just bided our time.
Perhaps the case goes all the way to the Supreme Court and wins, all that would be secured would be an advisory referendum that wouldn’t be legally binding. This would once again leave any Indyref2 secured in this way open to the same sabotage of a unionist boycott that threatens every other option. As some commentators have already noted, this is the trouble with seeking a legal resolution to what is in essence a political roadblock.
There are other complications to independence I have barely covered here that are really deserving of their own posts. Hard Brexit is a critical one. This is another of the paradoxes: the harder the Brexit, the more desirable independence becomes to Scottish voters but also the harder it becomes to achieve. Much of this boils down to economics. 64% of Scottish exports go to England, Wales and Northern Ireland while only 15% goes to the EU. If we want to leave the UK and re-enter the EU this would mean aligning our economic policy with a minor trading partner and distancing ourselves from the rest of the UK. It’s certainly not an impossible arrangement (and I’m sure we could adapt) but the economic pain we’d have inflicted on us from leaving is only heightened the more Westminster tumbles down into the Brexit fantasy.
Covid-19 is another spanner in the works we can’t afford to ignore. The Tories have completely bottled the UK’s response to the pandemic, and through their atrocious negligence as well as false portrayal of the crisis as a trade-off between public health and the economy we’ve now ended up with the worst of both worlds: one of the worst Covid death rates in the world coupled with a disastrous recession. Sturgeon’s performance has been refreshing measured against such incompetence, and we can see a clear diversion in independence polling precisely when the Covid crisis hit.
This whole coronavirus saga has exposed with brutal efficiency what was already obvious to some, which is that Westminster couldn’t arrange a piss-up in a brewery. The list of failures by this Conservative government is long. It’s a source of national humiliation, and Scotland’s been taken along for the ride. The UK’s debt is now equal to the size of the economy, and if Scotland were to leave soon and assume our share of this borrowed money it would be a millstone around our neck right at the moment we’d be looking to forge a new, more hopeful path going it alone. Horrifyingly, the deeper we slide into this catastrophe the harder I think it will be to untether ourselves from the union financially in the immediate term.
We now find ourselves in a situation where we have an unstoppable force (the independence movement) that is on the march and only growing stronger, making a beeline straight towards an immovable object (Westminster). I said earlier how the democratic deficit is the most powerful reason for independence, and nowhere is that more obvious than now. Westminster is sowing the seeds of its own demise; by refusing to budge it is doing a far better job of recruiting people to the independence cause than any nationalist ever could.
I genuinely think an independent Scotland could be on the horizon now, but not if nationalists get impatient. One misstep here from the SNP and it will all be for nothing. Unfortunately, there are no better options than to wait this out. Right now we might be sitting at a political impasse, but we should take solace from the fact that the reason Boris is being so stubborn on this is because he knows the Union’s days are numbered.
In the time that we have we can build on successes and develop the independence movement further – to strengthen it. We need to break Tory hegemony in Westminster by working in partnership with our friends in England, and we need braver commitments on some of the policy shortfalls of 2014 such as currency. With an ever-greater lead in the polls, that affords a lot more scope to be radical in the vision that can be proposed to the Scottish people, and when that offer is made (whenever that might be) I’m positive Scotland won’t turn it down again.
Words by Charlie Forbes
Cover art by Katy Bremner (@katsbrems)
Sources, Further Reading and Other Resources:
The Guardian – ‘A rocky route to a Scottish independence referendum’
The Times – ‘Douglas Ross calls for boycott of any unofficial independence referendum’
Malcolm Harvey and Daniel Cetrà – ‘Explaining accommodation and resistance to demands for independence referendums in the UK and Spain’
The Financial Times – ‘Scottish independence and the Brexit paradox’
Politico – ‘Guide to Scottish National Party splits and factions’
The Herald – ‘Scottish independence: Support at 51 per cent in new poll’
Reuters – ‘Scottish government publishes draft bill for second independence referendum’
BBC News – ‘Scottish independence: What is a section 30 order?’
Scottish Government – ‘Scotland’s right to choose: putting Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands’
BBC News – ‘Election 2019 – Scotland results’
Sky News – ‘Tory Poster Puts Labour ‘In Salmond’s Pocket”
IDEA – ‘Reflections on Referendums’
Statista – ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) deaths worldwide per one million population as of February 4, 2021, by country’
Politico – ‘High UK debt spurs talk of tax rises’
TUC – ‘Impact of Covid-19 and Brexit for the UK economy’