Sunday is the second anniversary of the Scottish independence referendum, the second ‘Here’s what you could have won’ day of thanksgiving. Or, if you prefer, atonement.
The referendum is only over in the purest, most technical, sense. The campaign continues and it is clear to everyone that, at some point, on some day, Scotland will have to be tested again. The SNP demand a mulligan and will not cease until such time as they’re given a second chance. They haven’t gone away, you know.
And, in one sense, that is reasonable. The SNP didn’t spend eighty years losing elections to give up now they’re can see the winning post at last. One more defeat, even a large and significant one, doesn’t sting so much when placed in that historical context. There is always next season.
Scottish independence is a zombie policy; it cannot be killed. All Unionists can hope for is that it will disappear for a few years before, with apologies to Myles na Gopaleen, we enjoy the spectacle of the next virulent eruption of Jockery.
That volcano is still active, however, and not even dormant. Unionists know now there will never be peace until such time as the national question is asked again. The referendum is always with us and it won’t be disappearing any time soon.
It is possible, I suppose, that a second referendum defeat might actually settle the question for the fabled ‘generation’ but even that should not be taken as read. Not while there are many senior people within the SNP who will cheerfully admit they’d be happy to ‘live in a cave if it meant Scotland being independent’. Which is all very well and good for him, but some of us prefer the comfort of proper houses.
And this helps account for the palpable bitterness evident in Unionist circles. They fought and won a battle they never sought only to discover their victory counterfeited by subsequent events. It was a win, but not enough. The two sides might be on the same pitch, but they are governed by different rules. There’s no way back from a Nationalist victory but Unionist triumphs are reinterpreted and taken to be nothing more than Nationalist victories delayed. The SNP need only be lucky once; Unionists must always have dame fortune on their side.
Moreover, there is a sneaking suspicion in many a Unionist heart that the old religion got away with it in 2014. Next time might be different. Unionism is handicapped by a fretful pessimism. No wonder it feels besieged. The fight goes on, you see, and there is no relief in sight.
Granted, the numbers – the facts of life, if you will – are clear and evidently on the side of the Union. Scotland is rich enough to manage as an independent state but would begin its independence markedly poorer than it is within the United Kingdom. The Scottish government’s own figures prove as much. Deficits of 10 percent of GDP cannot be run forever. The idea, heard often in 2014, that Scotland could spend more and borrow less while taxing just the same, will not hold now. It was a falsehood then and is an even bigger lie now.
But dreamers gonna dream and the great strength of the independence vision is that your vision is not the same as mine. It is a very personal epiphany and there are a million different imagined future Scotlands of the mind. So hard numbers and dreary facts dinnae matter so very much.
Even so, the economic case for independence is manifestly weaker now than it was two years ago. The second oil boom we were promised has not materialised (and nor have the secret oil fields of popular conspiracy).
Brexit, however, makes the political argument for independence more plausible (even if it also complicates many other matters, trade with England being more important to Scotland than trade with Europe). There are plenty of middle-class Scots who voted No in 2014 who are, at least, prepared to give Nicola Sturgeon a hearing now.
This has not shown up in the polls, largely because the details of Brexit remain, shall we say, unclear (even to them as argued for Brexit which, you may feel, is not altogether reassuring). But at some point we will know more and the nature of our new arrangements will be clearer. At that point it may be that economics and politics face-off once again and recent history tells us not to take the former’s victory for granted.
Lately, it has become fashionable in SNP circles to mock the opposition for their apparent ‘obsession’ with the constitution. There they go again, Natwags say, banging on about independence. As Joan McAlpine, a reliable bellweather for the grouchy wing of the independence movement, put it earlier this year: ‘When are the Tories going to shut up about independence? It is they, not the SNP, who cannot ‘move on’ from 2014.’
This is worth a wry smile, of course, even if it is also an exasperating example of the SNP’s talent for rhetorical jujitsu. Up is down and white is black and right is left in this Alice in Wonderland world of nationalist wonder.
Because, as everyone knows, the SNP started the campaign for a second referendum on September 19th 2014. They’ve hardly shut up about it since. All that talk about the referendum being a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’? Hogwash. Was it even just a ‘once in a generation’ chance? Sorry, that was claptrap too. Them’s the breaks.
And so Nicola Sturgeon’s immediate response to Brexit was to instruct her civil servants to begin the work needed to prepare another referendum bill. Every so often she rows back from this but, in the end, she cannot avoid being drawn back by its gravitational pull. This is what her party, her movement, is for. Remove the dream and you’re only left with banal managerialism.
Yet despite this, at least for the time being, the auguries for a second plebiscite are not encouraging. If a snap poll were held this winter, the Union would prevail. Probably. Even so, Sturgeon must keep encouraging the troops even as doing so makes it harder, not easier, to ‘reach out’ to those Scots who voted No last time and whose support, and conversion, Sturgeon needs to prevail next time.
That helps explain, I think, the sharp decline in her personal ratings. They remain healthy, for sure, even after nearly a decade in office but they are not so stratospheric as once they were. Not being Alex Salmond is always useful but even that appealing gloss begins to fade after a while.
Sturgeon is an increasingly polarising figure. Eighty five percent of Yes voters approve of her performance but every time she mentions the R-word another sliver of ice forms in many a Unionist heart.
As for Salmond, well, he has been quiet this summer (something which will not have disappointed Sturgeon and her team) but just as there’s no teaching an old dog new tricks there’s no way of silencing Salmond even if his McMarmite style of politics no longer helps the SNP to the extent it once did. Yesterday’s man is forever popping up to tell us he’s still here today.
He was at it again today, appearing on the Kremlin propaganda station Russia Today (this is telling too, by the way, and something of note) suggesting that, actually, there will be another referendum in 2018. This is the kind of intervention usually described as ‘unhelpful’. It is also, naturally, what Yes supporters want to hear. The vast majority of them want another crack at independence within two years.
But the vast majority of Yessers is not the same as the vast majority of Scots, most of whom have no appetite for another round of constitutional argy-bargy. They hate the idea of another referendum and the constant calling for such a vote is, in many ways, another example of the Yes side talking to itself and comforting itself without any consideration for how this looks to those not already inside the cocoon.
I doubt this assists the independence cause very much but perhaps I am mistaken about that. I still think Sturgeon is more interested in a poll in 2022 (provided she remains in office after the 2021 Scottish elections) by which time a more seemly amount of time will have passed since 2014 and, moreover, the Brexit consequentials may be measured and, with Jeremy Corbyn murdering the Labour party, the Conservatives will be entrenched in office at Westminster for another decade.
Still, for the time being, I think every intimation of another referendum sets back the cause more than it furthers it. This is Sturgeon’s dilemma: she cannot take it off the table but leaving it on the table makes eventual victory harder, not easier.
It’s a long game, however, and this is still the phoney war. Still the time for tooling-up in anticipation of the battles ahead.