When the last Scottish referendum campaign started, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Union. As the debate continued, I became first irritated and then enraged by what was being said north of the border, until Scottish independence came to seem something devoutly to be wished. Then, in the third stage of this miserable process, I felt bored with the whole thing and by the time polling day came around I was indifferent as to the outcome. Welcome to round 2.
There is nothing wrong with Scottish independence being an issue. Rationally, I would still like to maintain the Union, but I accept that many Scots do not. What is hard to accept is the level of vitriol directed at England by Scotland’s most enthusiastic freedom fighters. In any other context, many of their comments would be regarded as racist. This is neither altered nor excused by the fact that it is one set of Brits hurling abuse at another. Stop it, won’t you, and make the case rationally. Except they can’t, because all reason runs the other way. Like Brexit, if Scottish independence succeeds, it will succeed for emotional reasons alone.
These are strange times. The British, in extreme disgruntlement, have chosen to blame their woes on the next link up the chain, Brussels. The Scots, in extreme disgruntlement, have also chosen to blame their woes on the next link up the chain, in their case Westminster. These two processes have all the appearance of being identical, although they are presented as opposites. The consequences are likely to be identical too. Britain’s perceived problems will not be cured by leaving the EU, and Scotland’s perceived problems will not be cured by leaving the UK.
Still, it will be hard to avoid another referendum before long. The ratchet has been turning for years. Limited devolution produced only the clamour for greater devolution. Greater devolution produced only the clamour for independence. Now that one referendum has been granted, it is hard to deny that Britain’s exit from the EU has provided the grounds for a second. However it turns out, perhaps this time the issue really will be put to bed for a long time to come.
The popular perception seems to be that Nicola Sturgeon holds all the aces. The Queen of Scotland struts the political stage, declaring outrage at every perceived slight, arrogating to herself and her party the sole right to act as arbiters of what is right, what is democratic, what should happen. The hapless British Prime Minister is forced on to the defensive, reacting as best she can, beset by an ever more mountainous sea of troubles.
But is not the real situation the reverse?
Theresa May has, as everyone knows, the most formidable set of problems with which to contend, few of them of her own making. Politically, however, she is about as unassailable as any Prime Minister has been in living memory. There is no one, within her own party or outside it, who is a remotely credible rival for her position. This situation will change one day, but it shows few signs of changing for several years, at least until after the next general election.
Nicola Sturgeon, however, has problems – not today; perhaps not tomorrow; but almost certainly the day after. They will be existential problems for her party. The SNP cannot be described as a single-issue party in the way that UKIP has allowed itself to become. But it is nevertheless a party founded on one core proposition: that Scotland should be an independent nation.
For as long as the prospect of independence is a live issue, and for as long as a large proportion of the Scottish electorate supports it, the SNP can present itself as a united force, winning elections convincingly and forming governments. But what happens when that is no longer the case? What becomes of the SNP then? For how long can it blame all Scotland’s problems on England? For how long can it simultaneously attract the votes of former Labour, Conservative and LibDem supporters?
The SNP is the Not Party. When it was wresting control of Scottish cities from Labour, it was the Not the Labour Party. When it was wresting control of provincial Scotland from the LibDems, it was the Not the LibDem Party. Now that it is trying to wrest ultimate control from a Conservative national government, it is the Not the Conservative Party. But being a Not Party has a limited shelf life.
There are good arguments for saying that, despite all the turbulence and changes of the years, political disposition does not change a great deal. In the early 1980s (and again now), the imminent demise of the Labour Party was prophesied: 20 years later it was in firmer command of power than ever. Ditto the Conservative Party in the early 2000s. Long-standing political parties have core constituencies of emotion and attitude and principle, which may go in and out of fashion, but which in the long run are abiding. That is why the Conservative and Labour and Liberal parties have lasted for so long. What core constituency does the SNP represent, apart from the desire for independence?
As late as 1959, the Conservatives polled more votes in Scotland than any other party, and it was only after 1987 that things fell apart. Now, with a charismatic leader, the Scottish Conservatives are making a comeback. In due course, the Labour Party will surely do the same. And the LibDems. Even while independence remains on the agenda, there may be a limit to how long the SNP can convince people of widely differing attitudes and emotions that it can truly represent all of them. If independence ceases to be on the agenda, that will become even more difficult.
Nicola Sturgeon does not have a great deal of time. If she cannot win an independence vote within the next few years, she will probably never win one. When the SNP loses overall control in Holyrood, which could well happen in 2021, it will have lost the initiative, lost control and lost the moral high ground.
The one who is becoming boxed in a corner is Nicola Sturgeon, not Theresa May. The tighter the box, the shriller and more xenophobic will become the SNP’s demands. Late 2020 looks a good bet for the next Scottish referendum. On its result, the fate of the Union for the next century will probably depend.