One of the last things Boris Johnson did as leader of the Conservative Party was reject Nicola Sturgeon’s latest request for an independence referendum. There are many ways in which Johnson’s successor will want to break with the outgoing Prime Minister, but on this we can assume that little will change. In a crowded field of candidates, the referendum question is likely to herd Tories together rather than wedge them apart. No leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party can risk being the prime minister who lost the Union, even if there must be a certain Machiavellian appeal in the prospect of cutting loose from a nation that, in their eyes, spends too much money and reliably returns a majority of anti-Tory MPs.
As Chris Deerin suggested last week in the New Statesman, Johnson’s resignation may yet help to resolve Scotland’s constitutional stalemate by taking some of the wind out of the SNP’s rhetorical sails. If his replacement is perceived as a safer, more respectable figurehead for the UK’s spluttering system of government, it could reduce the political cringe factor that has been driving Scots into the pro-independence camp since Johnson moved into 10 Downing Street.
But even if Johnson is replaced by another repellent figure, it won’t necessarily nudge Scotland further down the road to freedom. Every leadership candidate is likely to embrace the strategy that has kept the Union intact since 2016: deny and delay. Johnson and Theresa May both calculated that, eventually, faced with a brick wall of refusal, Nicola Sturgeon would have to either back off, or take some kind of existential gamble. The naturally cautious First Minister has opted somewhat surprisingly for the latter, with a two-track plan to break the deadlock: either the Scottish government receives Supreme Court backing for a consultative independence referendum next October, or the SNP seeks a direct mandate to begin independence negotiations with the UK government at the next general election.
Neither of these options are likely to result in an independent Scotland, and Sturgeon surely knows this. Even if the Supreme Court permitted a consultative referendum – and that is itself far from guaranteed – it could not be legally binding. The UK government could still explicitly outlaw it, or it could simply ignore the result. The same goes for the result of a pro-independence general election, which would itself be extremely difficult to win with a majority of the popular vote. Such is the nature of sovereignty and self-determination: as the jurist James Crawford once explained the relationship between the two, “self-determine qui peut [if you can]”.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to make this point in articles for this publication and others. Scotland is more of a hypothesis than a fact. Our politicians can proclaim the “sovereignty of the people” only because nobody has ever properly tested the proposition as, for example, a Unilateral Declaration of Independence would. The reason the SNP has been so hesitant to pursue anything like the latter until now is that the hypothesis is far more fragile than it is profitable for them to admit. They know that the road to independence is paved with self-confidence, not self-doubt. But they also know that the supposedly sovereign people may not come off best in a direct scrap with the British state – indeed, those people might be keen to avoid such a fight altogether by removing the SNP at the earliest opportunity. Modern Scottish nationhood is dangerously over-invested in certain illusions of its own political and cultural integrity, and that solid, bolshie self-image is at risk of dissolving like candyfloss into a puddle when confronted with something more substantial than itself.
Understandably, Scottish nationalists don’t like hearing this sort of thing. Nobody wants to be told that their identity is more hypothetical than real. If Sturgeon was to say it outright, it would be a humiliating betrayal of her own cause, puncturing decades of hard work by people who have spent their lives inflating the nation’s ego to the point where approximately half the population believe it can and should be independent. But what if the British government said it?
The SNP’s strategy is just three words long, and it’s been that way for my entire adult life: show don’t tell. It is beautifully simple: instead of lecturing the Scottish people about the differences and inequalities between England and Scotland, you manoeuvre whatever moving parts you can reach in such a way that the contrast becomes self-evident. It’s why the SNP, after years of scepticism, ultimately supported devolution. It’s why the party has used devolution to develop a range of policies that are performatively opposed – whatever their real efficacy – to the way Westminster does things. And it is why, finally, the SNP has invited the British state – whether it’s the Supreme Court or the House of Commons – to admit that the Scottish people do not have the final say in the matter of Scotland’s constitutional future. If the UK was a cult that had spent years claiming not to be a cult, this would be the point at which one curious member genuinely attempted, in full view of everybody else, to leave.
It is a good strategy in difficult circumstances. The only alternative at this point would be a calamitous national climbdown, the psychological effects of which would ripple far beyond the true-believers and wash over the hundreds of thousands of people for whom independence still faintly denotes a principled rejection of the British model of half-baked democracy. There are plenty of people in Scotland who would welcome that outcome, having resigned themselves to or profited from the same old to-and-fro of Labour and Conservative, endlessly defaulting towards pampered swing-voters and media barons in the south until the next uncontrolled explosion of wayward and malformed popular dissent sends everything spinning even further out of real democratic control.
Forget, for a second, the cold political calculation of will-they-won’t-they and remember what this is about. The question of an independence referendum is not, ultimately, about whether Scotland would be wealthier, more just or more democratic after independence. The real issue is the supposedly voluntary nature of the Union: whether the people of Scotland are able to choose – from as broad a range of options as they wish – the means by which they pursue whatever it is they actually want.
Supporters of independence are told that if we don’t like the Tories, we should just vote Labour instead. But what if Scots don’t want to do that either? The Labour Party, terrified of the English right-wing press, is increasingly adopting the fundamental principle that it will never do any kind of deal with the SNP – even as it promises to legally mandate cooperation between the UK and Scottish governments. Further plans for constitutional reform, helmed by Gordon Brown, are reportedly being obstructed by members of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet who represent English seats. Labour’s positioning towards the SNP is far more revealing than its support for further devolution: if Scottish voters make a decision Labour don’t like, Labour will use the English majority to ignore them until they are worn down into changing their mind.
The image emerging from all this – increasingly shown, not told – is nothing short of a de facto conspiracy, across all parts of the British political establishment, to punish Scotland for straying outside of the lines of political consensus, stripping the Scottish people of any prospect of representation or redress on their own terms. Perhaps the unionists have stumbled upon their own version of “show don’t tell”: if that doesn’t persuade Scots to finally head for the door, nothing will, and we can all go back to the old normal. But that doesn’t make it right.