The Tories think delaying another independence referendum will help them. They shouldn't be so sure.
“The position remains the same.” These were the words the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alastair Jack, used to dismiss the Scottish Government’s renewed call for another independence vote.
His rejection was followed by a statement from Nicola Sturgeon reiterating her demands. But it feels very unlikely that 2020 will see a second vote.
Despite last month’s SNP landslide and the party’s ongoing momentum, the Tories hope that the tables will soon turn. I’m not a Tory, and would vote Yes to independence, but I suspect there are four reasons for them to feel optimistic.
Inhibitors for independence
The first is the trial of former First Minister, Alex Salmond, who is facing 14 charges, including one for attempted rape. Without speculating about what may arise in court this March, it is fair to say that it’s a big unknown. It may not impact support for independence, but it could affect support for the SNP.
The second reason is that as things stand there is no meaningful plan for how independence will look. A lot has changed since 2014, but the closest the Scottish Government has got to presenting a new vision is the Growth Commission paper it published in 2018. However, it hasn’t become a major part of its narrative and wasn’t even mentioned in Nicola Sturgeon’s speech this morning.
The questions are familiar (currency, borders, trade), but they need new and compelling answers. The Tories will hope that as Brexit settles down and the status quo becomes apparent, the SNP is forced to provide more details and it will make the risk look greater.
The third reason is the polls. They show differing numbers, but support for the union leads in almost all of them. Over recent months, the range for Yes has been 38%-48% (average 43%) while No has been 42%-50% (average 46%). Polls show most Scots think Holyrood should have the power to hold referendums, but also that most do not want one this year.
This leads to the fourth reason, and arguably the most important. There is an election next May. The Scottish Parliament uses a proportional electoral system, and, as things stand the chances of returning a pro-independence majority are up-in-the-air.
At present, the votes of SNP and Green MSPs mean there is a small majority of parliamentarians in favour of independence. However, even without factoring in the points above, recent polls suggest this is unlikely to be repeated without a historically high Green vote.
It is almost certain the SNP will win next year’s election, but if over 50% of elected MSPs oppose another referendum then it would remove the chances of another vote for the short-medium term. That will be the Tories’ main task.
Johnson is taking a more hands-on approach to Scotland than his predecessor. He’s established a ‘Union unit’ in Downing Street, put a greater focus on the SNP’s patchy domestic record and hinted at extra public spending. He has appointed himself Minister of the Union and intends to make more visits as part of his emphasis on “strengthening the union.”
It’s unclear how helpful this will be. Last month the Scottish Tory vote fell by 3.5% and they lost half their MPs. There is little love for Johnson, with one poll putting his approval rating at -37%. The Tories may be in a healthier position than 10 years ago, but they still face major problems from an electorate that hasn’t voted them first in any election for 50 years.
Strains on the union
This ties into the first reason they may come to regret their approach. Polls generally show a No lead, but, looking at the longer-term, the trend is away from the union. 10 years ago, the prospect of Scottish independence polling at current levels would have been unthinkable. The demographic polarisation is stark, with roughly two-thirds of Scots under 50 supporting independence and two thirds over 50 opposing it.
Particularly if Scotland elects a pro-independence majority next May, it feels reasonable to assume the gradual shift away from the union will continue, especially with an unpopular Tory government in Westminster and the further erosion of UK institutions – the welfare state, the Labour Party etc. There is no natural leader for a No campaign – with no pro-union leader polling over 20% for trust. Is the long-term political terrain really any more favourable?
This brings us to the other reason: Brexit. Assuming an agreement is reached, the implementation period will end a matter of months before Scots vote at Holyrood. If it leads to economic turbulence it could be hard to keep the pro-independence vote down. Even if the SNP vote flatlines, there’s no reason to think the pro-union parties are in for a significant boost.
If next year returns a pro-independence parliament, can the Tories keep saying no? They took that tact throughout the 90s and support of devolution soared.
Time would allow the Scottish Government to get its proposals in order and support for independence to become further entrenched. It is likely that a delayed referendum is better for Yes – even if not necessarily for the SNP.
A lot will change in the months ahead. Next May’s Scottish election is already looking like it could be the most historically significant in the history of the UK. It may even prove to be the last one.
Andrew Smith is a Glasgow-based political campaigner. He works for a human rights organisation. Follow him on Twitter.
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