NICOLA Sturgeon is surely among the throng rejoicing in Boris Johnson’s downfall. One of his last acts as prime minister was to refuse her request for a second referendum on Scottish independence in October next year. Perhaps his successor will be more amenable.
Sturgeon, who, hand on heart, promises allegiance to due legal process, will now make the case to the Supreme Court in London that she has the power to hold the vote on her own authority. If that fails, as it probably will, she says the SNP will fight the next UK general election as a quasi-referendum on independence.
Expecting the SNP to sweep Scotland’s Westminster seats again, Sturgeon will declare this to be resounding support for a second vote which London cannot ignore and will carry more weight than the other option of an unofficial advisory referendum.
It’s one of the conundrums of Scottish politics that some Scots vote for the SNP while opposing independence, although polling says the divide is now only two points in favour of staying compared with ten points in 2014.
The unanswered economic questions which prompted rejection of independence last time, despite a rush of support for the SNP during the six-month campaign, weigh as heavily today. But for nationalists who lean heavily Left, freedom from England – which they equate with Toryism – is worth the risk of economic upheaval.
Since 2016, Sturgeon has used Brexit, which a majority of Scots voted against, as the spearhead of her drive for Indyref2. She says departure from Europe, led by English votes, has harmed Scotland. Her plan is to join the European Union as quickly as Brussels agrees, although that could take years. There are already six candidate countries in the queue.
However, Boris Johnson’s implosion within days of refusing a second referendum has altered the complexion of the European case. Johnson was victim of his own hubris but the Remainer establishment which never reconciled to Brexit also had a hand in his political destruction.
Michael Heseltine, one of Britain’s loudest pro-Europeans, hailed Johnson’s resignation as the beginning of the end of Brexit. This may be a self-serving overstatement but if the next prime minister is chosen from the Remain camp, he or she could set a pro-EU course which gradually undermines Brexit until we are effectively back in the European fold.
How would this affect those pro-EU Scottish voters who oppose independence but might be swayed by the SNP’s Europeanism? Anything that lessens the effects of Brexit and renews ties with Europe would blunt the SNP’s strategy. These voters might reason that they were getting what they wanted without running the very real risks of independence.
Johnson’s departure also upsets the timetable for the next UK general election – due by 2024 – if the next Tory leader feels obliged to seek popular legitimacy because of the damaged credibility of the party whose majority Johnson claimed was entirely due to him.
Sturgeon set October 19, 2023 as the date for Indyref2 before the Johnson government fell apart and made an early general election a possibility. Her choice was an odd one in view of the fact that Tories were in danger of losing a 2024 election and being replaced by a coalition, led by Labour but hostage to the SNP’s Westminster MPs.
Waiting another year would have seemed prudent. With the Left back in power in 2024 and the SNP a key part of the coalition, Sturgeon would be allowed to hold as many referendums as she liked until she won. On the other hand, if she lost in 2023 and if the pro-UK Tories miraculously survived in 2024, independence would be further out of reach.
However these electoral scenarios work out, Sturgeon’s Indyref2 date has ensured independence will be a major talking point for the next 15 months, giving her every incentive to pick the fights with London that her supporters love.
The way the gap is narrowing, independence sooner or later is likely. The SNP had 30 per cent support for it before the 2014 referendum and hit 45 per cent at the end with every possibility that it could have won if the campaign, vicious by UK standards, had gone on a little longer. The Yes and No camps are now almost equally divided.
Yet after 15 years in power, neither Sturgeon nor her predecessor Alex Salmond has provided a convincing project for an independent Scotland which promises anything certain other than freedom from the UK and vulnerability, at least for some time, outside any supportive economic bloc.
Sturgeon has done nothing to reduce Scotland’s dependence on UK subsidies. How does she make up the shortfall when her government debt is growing rather than shrinking?
Scotland needs a bicameral parliament which would hold her accountable, and independent institutions including the civil service, judiciary and police, all of which gradually have become beholden to the SNP.
It also needs to create the mechanisms for a central bank and a money of its own that markets and the EU accept as stable. Using the pound or the euro would mean dependence on interest-rate and monetary policy decided in either London or Brussels where no one would pay any attention to Scotland’s particular situation.
All of these issues should be settled before another vote. What she is promising is a Potemkin independence from which the Edinburgh establishment would benefit mightily at the expense of ordinary Scots.
Sturgeon’s Indyref2 pitch is: ‘Independence in the modern world, wealthier, happier, fairer – why not Scotland?’ She says countries such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, which roughly compare in population with Scotland, are all more prosperous than the UK and that Scotland could be like them. It’s only in the small print of the paper she presented that one could read the lawyerly caution: ‘Independence in itself is not a guarantee of improved performance.’ That at least is true.
Among the many rational arguments against independence, the incompetence of Sturgeon’s government – the most authoritarian and intrusive in Europe – is one of the most decisive. Being part of the UK has saved the Scots – who went from being overwhelmingly Labour to being overwhelmingly SNP – from themselves in the past. Romantic independence threatens that.