RIP Van Referendum has woken from his Covid hibernation. Nicola Sturgeon has re-opened the fight for Scottish independence and wants to hold ‘Indyref2’ by the end of 2023. She will stick to this timetable if she is sure of winning but has given herself space to boil up enough hostility towards the UK’s English government to avenge the SNP’s narrow 55-45 defeat in 2014.
That, however, might not be the end of the matter. If victory in 2023 is as indecisive as the previous result, what will she do with her Remainers, captive to an irrevocable decision? Why would they quietly accept the defeat which the SNP refused?
Sturgeon portrays herself as the spearhead of a fight against England while ignoring the fact that she’s brushing off the half of Scots voters who reject separatism. The chances of the next referendum yielding a majority for independence large enough to drown out domestic opposition are slim.
The SNP’s aim is to wear out London’s confidence in the future of the Union and replace it with a fatalistic acceptance that the nationalists will win eventually, so why not give in now and leave them to deal with the consequences of their folly? It may be that English voters do not care whether Scotland stays or goes. But the British government cannot escape their duty to protect Scots who want to remain in the Union. They have rights as British citizens which are even stronger than those of Hongkongers which the UK has recognised.
The same difficulty will arise in Northern Ireland if a referendum there chooses to join the Republic despite almost a million Protestants being implacably opposed to losing their country.
There are signs from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove that the government’s veto over another Scottish referendum is wavering. What this means is that Indyref2 cannot just be a re-run of 2014 where a simple majority was enough to win. For the next referendum, to be credible, it must show at least two-thirds of voters want independence.
Before it is held, the SNP must also present a believable blueprint, independently verifiable as feasible, of how it will ensure independence works efficiently and democratically rather than be allowed to coast on the Alice in Wonderland document Alex Salmond and Sturgeon presented in 2014.
Scotland has a serious democratic deficit, laid bare by the fight earlier this year over when Sturgeon knew about the plot by the SNP and some civil servants to prosecute Salmond for sex offences of which he would be found not guilty. Sturgeon simply announced that she would not resign as first minister even if official inquiries found she had acted improperly. Her arrogance overrode everything else and she fell only one seat short of a majority at the parliamentary elections in May. No UK prime minister could have got away with anything so blatant, and the Scots should be protected from it.
Before it can become independent, Scotland needs a ready-to-go central bank without which it would remain an economic dependant of the country or institution whose currency it used. It also needs a clear separation between the civil service, the police and the judiciary, and the political party in power. The list would also include a better electoral system rather than that bequeathed at devolution by the UK government and a bicameral parliament which would not meekly allow prime ministers to dominate it with impunity.
Having these guarantees would probably increase support for independence. There is a streak of authoritarianism in the Scots – ruthlessly practised by the SNP – that needs the curbs on each other of the government and its separate agencies.
The significant change in the Anglo-Scottish political landscape since 2014 is Brexit, which a majority of Scots opposed. Sturgeon’s objective is to gain the freedom from the UK to rejoin the EU, which would take years even if all EU member states approve. It would depend on Scotland having its own currency for at least two years and meeting euro debt and budget deficit limits. The early years of independence would, of course, be the hardest for any nation to create a ‘money-commanding’ international credibility.
One result of EU membership would be a hard border between Scotland and England, its main trading partner, which there hasn’t been since Hadrian’s Wall. The SNP in its cavalier way has brushed off this division between two peoples who are alike in most ways as potentially a good thing because it would prompt the Borders economy to reinvigorate itself.
In its way, this sums up the quasi-suicidal triviality of the SNP under its charismatic leader who has become the personification of independence. In its dream world, every difficulty can be magicked away, which is as good a reason to oppose independence as all the many others.