It took two referendums to get a final answer to the independence question. The people of Quebec had their first vote on whether to pursue secession from Canada in May 1980. The proposition was defeated, and by a chunky majority, but the idea did not go away, it lived to fight another day. The Parti Québécois would not lightly abandon its dream of independence. Pressure built for another referendum and a second was held 15 years later. The turnout was huge and the separatists did much better this time, but not quite well enough. Independence was again rejected. Though the margin of defeat was slim on the second occasion, that was that. Two and it was done. An argument that had consumed Quebec and roiled Canada for long and bitter years was finally put to bed. There has not been another referendum since.
This is something to remember when thinking about the likelihood, timing and consequences of a second vote on independence for Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon has just announced her bid for a fresh referendum in October 2023. Her opponents have greeted this with a mixture of scorn (haven’t we got too many other things to worry about?) and cynicism (it’s just a stunt to appease her activists and stoke grievances with London).
What’s missing from these responses is a recognition that the SNP is never going to relinquish its quest. Independence is the party’s raison d’etre. Its leader is under great pressure to deliver. Simply telling the SNP to let it go is not only futile, it may ultimately prove counterproductive for those who want to preserve the union.
David Cameron responded to the vote against independence in 2014 by congratulating himself for being the prime minister who settled the matter once and for all. Very smug, very Cameron and very wrong. The tightness of the 55-45 result meant that the question was bound to remain a live one, made livelier by the subsequent failure of Mr Cameron and his successors at Number 10 to make a serious effort to convince more Scots that the UK is a hospitable home for them. Despite a declining and scandal-splattered reputation as a government in Edinburgh, the SNP has maintained an awesome level of electoral dominance north of the border. In the eight years since the referendum, it has won two elections to the Scottish parliament and crushed the UK-wide parties at three consecutive general elections. Polling suggests that support for independence among those with a view has only very rarely dropped below 45%, while peaking at 60%. There were spikes in the aftermath of the Brexit vote that most Scots didn’t want and during periods of the pandemic when Ms Sturgeon was impressing her country with confidence-building public performances while Boris Johnson was clowning his way from deadly blunder to fatal fiasco. It is now “a dead heat” between Yes and No, says a person close to the SNP leader. A Labour figure who played a key role on the unionist side in the 2014 referendum agrees: “Scotland is basically a 50/50 country.” The SNP is going to keep pushing until either it is removed from power, which doesn’t look likely in the foreseeable future, or it gets another crack at independence.
Some of the forces that sharpened appetites for separation are stronger than ever. We are in the 12th year of Conservative rule at Westminster. A mendacious old Etonian scoundrel at Number 10 has put an additional strain on the union because he is the species of English Tory whom Scots found particularly noxious even before Partygate. That has been so toxic that four of the six Scottish Tory MPs confirmed that they voted to eject Mr Johnson in the confidence vote in June. The leader of the Scottish Tories, Douglas Ross, and his predecessor, Ruth Davidson, have both called for his removal. Even if the Tory party eventually gets round to defenestrating Mr Johnson, none of his putative successors looks likely to be appealing north of the border.
The Conservative party is now largely in the hands of people who claim to treasure the UK while trashing its unity. Once asked what he thought of independence for Scotland, Mr Johnson responded by humming the tune of There’ll Always Be an England. Since he and his fellow Brexiters took control, the Conservatives have become less a unionist party and more an English nationalist party. There was briefly a period when Downing Street seemed to be troubled about the fragility of the union. A “Scotland unit” was set up at Number 10. The Aberdonian Michael Gove was put on the case. Mr Gove has since been diverted to other duties, such as trying to make sense of levelling up, and nothing more has been heard of the Scotland unit. On Mr Johnson’s to-do list, preserving the union comes a very long way behind saving his own skin. In so much as he thinks about Scotland at all, it is as a problem for the next prime minister.
So he has fallen back on baldly blocking another referendum on the basis that the law says one has to be authorised by Westminster and he won’t countenance it. Sir Keir Starmer is also adopting a hardline posture of “no deals with the SNP”. He does so for fear that a more conciliatory position will leave him exposed at the next general election. As I have remarked to you before, the Labour leader is compelled to fireproof himself against Tory attempts to scare English voters with the idea that a minority Labour government would be taken hostage by Ms Sturgeon. She says this makes Scottish democracy “a prisoner of Boris Johnson or any prime minister” who refuses to acknowledge that the last election to the Holyrood parliament produced a majority and therefore a mandate for another referendum.
Her gambit is to try to circumvent the Number 10 veto by asking the supreme court to rule on whether it would be legal for the Scottish government to call a vote without Westminster’s approval. If the court agrees and Scots then chose independence in a referendum sanctified as constitutional the result could not be argued with by any democrat. If the court turns her down, the outcome most expect, Ms Sturgeon hopes to wield this as proof that Scots are being denied a free choice about their destiny. “That would confirm that it is not a union by consent and that’s a big problem for the unionist side,” argues a member of her inner circle.
The course she has embarked on is paved with hazards. One risk for her is that she gets what she’s asking for. After the 2014 defeat for independence, I heard many senior SNP figures say they wouldn’t want to try again until they had polling evidence of a solid majority for independence – 60/40 was often mentioned – over a sustained period. They haven’t managed that despite all the help they have been gifted by a hardcore Brexit that told Scotland to get stuffed and a Scots-repellent Tory prime minister. The SNP’s gamble is that the intensity of a campaign would sufficiently move the dial for them to win.
There are also risks to the unionist cause in the adamantine refusal by both the Conservatives and Labour to concede that there is a legitimate case for a second referendum. Opponents of a fresh vote argue that 2014 was supposed to be a “once-in-a-generation” event so Scots can’t have another one before the late 2030s. The SNP has an excellent riposte when it says that Scots were told that they had to stay in the UK to remain within the EU during the first referendum – only then to be wrenched out of the EU against their will. “Putting our fingers in our ears and saying nah-nah-di-nah-nah is not a sustainable position,” says one senior Tory who cares about the union.
Many at Westminster appear to take the view that something will turn up to make the Scottish question go away. It seems much more likely that it will continue to fester, trapping everyone in circular and rancorous arguments, until it is resolved one way or the other. Crudely relying on delaying tactics could rebound on the unionist cause. Younger Scots lean much more heavily towards independence than older ones. The ties that once bound the UK have become frail and are likely to fray further in the absence of any creative repair plan from either the Tories or Labour.
Ms Sturgeon may very well fail to get a 2023 vote, but I have become convinced that Scotland’s future will not be settled definitively without a second referendum at some point. It takes two.