Where Next for the 'Beautiful Dream' of Scottish Independence?

Scotland in Union supporter Martin Redfern asks the question: where next?

Nicola Sturgeon is a massively successful politician.  Despite now heading a minority government, her SNP party far and away dominates Scottish politics. Plus, together with the Greens, there’s a majority in Holyrood in favour of separation from the UK. 

We all know the SNP leader intends to launch a ‘national conversation’ this summer to persuade 2014 No voters to back her drive for an independent Scotland. She seeks ‘to convince [Scots] that independence really does offer the best future for Scotland.’

So what are Ms Sturgeon’s chances of success for her ‘beautiful dream’?

Despite the high personal regard in which she’s held, the challenges facing Ms Sturgeon in separating Scotland from the rest of the UK are legion. The nationalist leader is politically conservative – she’s not going to risk another referendum unless she’s pretty much certain she’ll win. A second loss in close succession would not only be a job loser for her; it would kick the independence question into the long grass for a very long time.

That awkward constitutional issue

Firstly there’s that awkward constitutional issue. The right to hold a referendum is at the gift of Westminster. The SNP chose not to include an independence referendum in its manifesto this parliamentary term, albeit with an EU-related caveat. So, on this basis alone, David Cameron could refuse any such request. Not in the manifesto means no mandate, in the eyes of Westminster – and indeed political convention.

The First Minister informs us she will base her decision to hold a second referendum on opinion polls. And that she alone will make that decision.  

But this places her on shaky ground democratically – and she knows it. 

David Cameron has repeatedly reminded her of her ‘once in a lifetime or even a generation’ promises and, more significantly, that the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement to respect the democratic will of the people as expressed in the 2014 referendum carries her own signature.  

That opinion polls these days seem more often inaccurate than not isn’t really the point. The constitution is the single largest subject in Scottish politics. So the key issue has to be whether basing such an enormous decision on opinion polls rather than a legitimate democratically held referendum is reasonable or not.

So why didn’t Ms Sturgeon include indyref2 in her manifesto? Why take such a risk after the astonishing general election SNP landslide last year? After all, previously a referendum has always been included in every SNP election manifesto.  It’s the party’s raison d’etre – it’s quite simply why it exists. 

The short answer is that the ever canny Ms Sturgeon realised it would have been a vote loser in May’s elections. That she admitted to her summer independence drive only weeks before the election appears to have lost the SNP its Holyrood majority. Going as far as to include a referendum in the manifesto may well have lost the SNP even more of its pro-union voters. So Ms Sturgeon risked a middle path. And it more or less paid off – she’s still in charge and continues to dominate the Scottish political landscape.

A Tory surge?

So what does the changed composition of the rest of Holyrood mean for the chances of another referendum? 

Besides the SNP losing its majority, the other big surprise in this May’s election results was the surge in Tory votes. With 31 seats, it became the official opposition party - but isn’t all Scotland supposed to be left of centre? How could this happen?

Tory leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, apparently is also a fan of opinion polls. And every one told her what matters above all else to many No voters is a strong opposition to SNP independence plans. So as Labour attempted to move the debate on to more immediate issues of the economy and taxation, and our public services, Ruth Davidson focused on independence. Paradoxically almost as much as the SNP.

Launching her manifesto in April, she insisted there are no ‘so-called indyref triggers that justify another referendum’, as her party's manifesto vowed to support a ‘fresh positive drive to promote the Union’. The manifesto said the Conservatives would back the creation of ‘a new UK-wide effort to promote the strengths and values of the Union’.

Ms Davidson makes very clear she doesn’t intend to adopt a negative position this summer merely reacting Ms Sturgeon’s assertions about the positives of an independent Scotland; she’ll be proactively bigging up the UK. And that’s why many voted for her. With Ruth Davidson’s strong stance in May on the constitution, her Holyrood seats increased by 16, while Labour lost 13 and was reduced to 24 seats in the chamber.

Most predicted Labour would perform badly in May though few quite as direly as they did. In independence leaning areas they lost seats to the SNP and in pro-union constituencies and regions, their apparently ambiguous stance on independence saw them lose ground to the Tories.

Buoyed by her election success, Ruth Davidson will undoubtedly provide a much stronger opposition voice to independence, but let’s not get carried away here – the SNP  and the pro-independence Greens combined have 69 out of 129 seats, giving a much needed majority of MSPs in favour of UK break-up.

Targeting ‘soft’ No voters

But back in the real world, what are the realistic chances of the SNP’s summer independence campaign being effective? While the occasional opinion poll favours separation from the UK, over the long term, popular opinion remains supportive of continuing as part of the UK. In fact, there’s scant evidence, despite the personal popularity of Ms Sturgeon and the SNP’s undoubted election success, that more Scots now support the nationalist cause than back in 2014.

Confident of not losing any existing Yes voters, Ms Sturgeon now has her sights firmly set on 200,000 to 300,000 ‘soft’ No voters. That’s all she needs to win. We can be certain the well-funded SNP will be carrying out relentless demographic analysis. They’ll know exactly which groupings to focus upon. In the referendum, the only segment consistently in favour of separation was young men in their twenties and thirties. The elderly, the better off, women and particularly those living in the south, east and far north of Scotland were most strongly opposed. Over the coming months, we’ll learn who her targets will be.

Head and heart

But what about all those ‘head’ and ‘heart’ arguments that were so crucial in the run up to the referendum? If the referendum had been a competition about the campaigning, then there’s little doubt the SNP would have won. Their relentless positivity attracted voters, particularly younger voters drawn by the idealism and excitement of creating a new nation. The SNP ‘heart’ arguments were emotionally powerful; strong and persuasive, they rarely missed a beat. And it would seem that momentum remains. Many pro-independence supporters appear significantly more passionate and determined than those who seek to preserve the status quo.

Yet when you look at ‘head’ arguments, it’s a different matter. It’s generally accepted the SNP lost the referendum because it presented a lacklustre argument on the economy and jobs – as we know, there wasn’t even clarity about which currency would be used. But more generally, the electorate appeared to feel there weren’t enough solid guarantees that Scotland would be better off outside the UK than within it. And uncertainty about EU membership wouldn’t go away – would Scotland have automatic entry or would we join a five year membership queue? Would we have to join the euro and Schengen?  Both are highly unpopular with Scots. 

At the heart of the economic debate is always oil and gas. Alex Salmond’s North Sea fossil fuels tax revenue forecasts seemed optimistic in 2014. The subsequent global crash in oil prices from $113 a barrel then to around $50 now has proved the ex - First Minister’s assertions to be wildly unrealistic. The Scottish economy isn’t just about oil but there’s no denying, with 65,000 North Sea related jobs already lost, it’s absolutely at the heart of it.

Passion or scepticism?

So Ms Sturgeon gears up to attempt to persuade a few hundred thousand they made a mistake on 18th September 2014. On her side she has the machinery of the Holyrood government and 100,000 motivated party members, ready to drive forward a cause in which they passionately believe. But she potentially faces a Scotland even more sceptical than in 2014, aware of economic realities and with a Tory opposition at Holyrood determined to trip up the SNP whenever it can.

Plus even if Ms Sturgeon is entirely confident opinion polls demonstrate she’s convinced us, she then has to satisfy a reluctant David Cameron that another referendum is constitutionally legitimate.

But let’s not forget the forthcoming EU referendum – Ms Sturgeon’s current favourite indyref2 trigger du jour. Leaving the EU would undoubtedly be a major constitutional change and David Cameron, if Brexit happens and he remains Prime Minister, will be under pressure from many in the SNP to acquiesce to second referendum demands. 

EU opinion polls suggest the UK result will be close – though with Remain ahead in Scotland. Ms Sturgeon has long been fond of threatening that if, ‘the UK drags Scotland out of the EU against its will’, this would form a ‘material change’. And therefore could be enough to stage a second independence referendum – but would it? 

Well, it depends.

While EU opinion polls may show the two sides neck and neck, recent Scottish independence polls are not so close. The majority of Scots – 48% to 44% - apparently still prefer to be part of the UK, either in or out of Europe. 

As the possibility of Brexit looms, the conservative Ms Sturgeon risks being trapped by her own rhetoric into a separation referendum she has negligible chance of winning. 

So while Alex Salmond talks up indyref2, other senior SNP figures such as Edinburgh South West MP, Joanna Cherry presents a more pragmatic view, closer to Ms Sturgeon’s, ‘We’re not going to hold another referendum until we think we’ve got a very good chance of winning it. So we… watch… to see which way public opinion is going.’   

And it seems like public opinion considers post-oil boom Scotland as part of the UK, in or out of the EU, to be a better option than an independent Scotland that might - one day -join the EU. 

© Martin Redfern 2016

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