Thus sometimes hath the brightest day a cloud. Within hours of a ‘Leave’ vote being declared in last week’s referendum, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon emerged to solemnly sprinkle salt over the ice-cream, declaring that another Scottish independence referendum was “highly likely”. Her rationale: that it was “democratically unacceptable” for Scotland, which had just voted ‘Remain’, to be made to leave the EU. This despite the fact that it had been a UK-wide referendum.
A “significant and material change” in circumstances has apparently transpired, presenting nationalists with a veneer of justification whereby they can foist another “once in a generation [biannual]” crack at independence upon us. And yet, to use ex-footballer Rio Ferdinand’s turn-of-phrase, in this very moment when nationalists believe they can ‘assume the mantelpiece’, and all seems to be falling into place for them, there are in actual fact flirting with oblivion, for the possibility of them failing is, I believe, far greater than that of them succeeding.
Present nationalist hopes depend upon voter desire to remain within the United Kingdom being trumped by a desire to remain within the EU. The 62 per cent Scottish Remain vote would indeed suggest that there is strong pro-EU sentiment in Scotland. My own city, Glasgow, voted 2 to 1 in favour of Remain, second only to Edinburgh amongst major cities in its apparent ardour for continued EU membership. And yet, in my experience, the existence of an ‘EU-love’, which would be necessary if feelings of attachment to the British union (or fear of leaving it) are to be displaced, barely exists outside of the chattering classes.
Among the C1/C2/DEs who populate my jungle, the EU referendum was a non-thing. I heard nobody talk about it. I saw no posters or stickers in windows (none at all). I saw nobody distributing leaflets. No campaigners phoned me or came to my door canvassing. When I broached the subject with people, it was inevitably met with a shrug of the shoulders, followed by either total disinterest or a half-hearted, ‘I suppose I’ll vote to stay’. I did not hear any emotion expressed on the subject prior to the referendum, and only mild disappointment (from a few) since. Glasgow saw a pathetic 56 per cent turnout, meaning that only 37 per cent of the population of Scotland’s largest city actually felt motivated to vote Remain.
Compare this to the Scottish independence referendum, when to even broach the subject was to sting most people into expressing excitement, irritation, anger or despair. Those same people who now develop a thousand-yard stare when Brexit is mentioned. Again, this is all anecdotal and Glasgow (with its traditionally low voter turnout) is not Scotland, but nothing that I have observed during the course of this latest referendum gives me cause to believe that EU-Remain votes will inevitably (or even probably) translate into ‘Yes’ votes in an independence referendum. The two issues would appear to be of a different order.
For the nationalists a second referendum is last-roll-of-the-dice territory. It is inconceivable that should a second ‘No’ vote be delivered, there will be another referendum within decades, if ever. And this latter referendum will now, post Brexit-vote, be conducted in circumstances even less conducive to a ‘Yes’ victory. Whereas before, any separation would have left England and Scotland (eventually) within the commonality of EU membership, now the severance will be complete.
Reassurances offered previously by the Nats on having post-independence open borders with the rest of the UK, and of continuing to use sterling, are now surely redundant. If, in the event of a Yes vote, we ever want to return to the EU fold (which the SNP cites as being the central reason for having a second independence referendum) we will have to embrace the euro. Over ninety per cent of the population of our little island will use a different currency to us. And, unlike Ireland, we, as a Johnny-come-lately to the EU – would in all probability have to accept the free movement of EU citizens. This would mean border-controls: somebody in Dumfries would have to show a passport in order to travel to Carlisle. Even if those campaigning against independence in any future referendum should succeed in registering these concerns as mere possibilities, it seems highly doubtful that a ‘Yes’ vote would ensue.
Like frantic moths, Scottish nationalists are rushing towards the first light that they see – that of an opportunistic referendum. They don’t care that oil prices are still in the doldrums or that the economic environment may still be rocky, further weakening their economic case. Neither do they recognise the genuine resentment that holding a second referendum so soon will generate. Rather than wait for the most propitious of moments (as Sturgeon had always argued), they are allowing themselves to be propelled by events.
Before the EU referendum, the CBI referred to Brexit as a “dark cloud” of uncertainty. For some, that cloud has become even darker, morphing into the prospect of a break-up of the UK. But rather than a threat, this ‘straining-at-the-leash’ by nationalists desperate for yet another referendum presents us with an opportunity to reassert stability by finally putting separatist dreams to sleep. Without the occasional dark cloud you don’t get a harvest. Or, to clumsily invert Shakespeare to fit in with my narrative: sometimes the brightest of days hath no clouds at all.
Anyway, that’s enough about clouds. Gove for PM!