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8 December 2022

Is support for Scottish independence resurging?

Nicola Sturgeon seems unable to contemplate departing office without the national question being answered.

By Chris Deerin

There has been much babble in Nationalist circles this week because a new poll shows support for Scottish independence sitting at an impressive 56 per cent. This is indeed a big number, and if it could be improved on a little, and sustained, it would probably make an unanswerable case for a second referendum.

That, after all, has been the unionist position for some time now – even the normally unbending Scottish Secretary Alister Jack has admitted that if backing for separation was at 60 per cent for a “reasonably long period” then a second vote would have to follow.

Unionists are not the demonic, anti-democratic Scotland haters that Nicola Sturgeon – who appears to be devolving into a version of Alex Salmond at his most divisive – has suddenly decided they are. The First Minister has taken a wretched diversion into fundamentalist territory, casting years of successful SNP gradualism into the air. But the unionist stance has not actually changed.

There is, at the moment, no clear case for a referendum and no amount of press conferences or full-caps media releases or online screeching will change that. The first vote was only eight years ago, and resulted in a clear win for No. The SNP did not win an overall majority at the last Holyrood election – that is something only Sturgeon’s loathed predecessor has managed – and co-opting the dogmatic Greens into her government doesn’t change that fact.

Most important of all, poll after poll shows that the Scottish electorate doesn’t want another vote yet. The voters do not share Sturgeon’s lifelong, 24/7, single-issue obsession, or her apparent desperation at the fact her time is running out. Indeed, the same poll exciting the Nats this week also found that healthcare and the NHS is the most important issue among voters, and that trust in the SNP to manage the health service has fallen by 18 percentage points since April 2021. Scotland, its people and its politics are bigger than the SNP, and will continue perfectly happily without Sturgeon in due course.

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But the First Minister is determined to have one last rush at the gates before she goes. She seems unable to contemplate departing office without the independence question being answered in a definitive way, whether the timing is to her movement’s advantage or not. The absurdity of her current position, insisting that if pro-independence parties win more than 50 per cent of the vote at the next general election then she will be entitled to begin separation negotiations, is telling. First, it is not in her gift, or anyone else’s, to rule that a general election should be fought on one particular issue. Second, there is something genuinely grotesque about such monomania in a time of profound, heartbreaking economic crisis, particularly when your proposed solution would provoke further and deeper crisis on a monumental scale. Third, the UK government, whether Labour or Tory, will be under no obligation to accept her narrative.

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The route to independence, if Scotland is ever to choose it – and it is perfectly possible the Yes movement, with its simplistic solutions and religious fervour, is a passing fad and will sink back in due course – remains through a referendum. The most straightforward way to manage this is for the British government to determine the conditions that would lead to such a vote: an SNP overall majority in a Holyrood election, as before; or a year of polls showing support for independence at 60 per cent, as Alister Jack suggests; and perhaps a requirement that the nationalists win any referendum by at least ten clear points if such a major constitutional upheaval, involving the break-up of a country, is to take place. I didn’t used to think this latter hurdle was reasonable, but such has been the SNP’s relentless whingeing and grievance mongering, and its lack of seriousness about addressing Scotland’s deep-rooted social problems over 15 years in government, that the option of a cheap, destructive 50+1 victory might be better removed to concentrate minds.

It remains to be seen whether the changes currently taking place in the SNP have any impact on its direction of travel. It’s clear, as I wrote last week, that Sturgeon’s iron grip on her party is starting to slip, particularly given that the party’s new Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, owes nothing to her patronage (and that he defeated the candidate put up by the leadership to block his ascent). If Sturgeon’s writ no longer runs among the Westminster group, who are often the front line of attack against the UK parties and who stand to lose most if her general election wheeze backfires, then her end may be hastened. She will no doubt sympathise with the fact the bug of independence, once caught, is hard to stamp out.

This week’s poll may simply be an outlier or a spasm of discontent at the recent Supreme Court ruling – or it may be a straw in the wind, the first sight of a shift that’s underway. It’s not something I detect on the streets out there, but perhaps we’re moving towards a point where a significant majority of Scots will decide that they want independence. If so, we should watch for a year of consistent, 60 per cent support in the polls, or wait for those voters to give the Nats an overall majority at the next Holyrood election in May 2026. That may be too late for Sturgeon, but few unionists could then deny the SNP their shot at a second vote. All the rest can be ignored as self-serving political blah.

[See also: Can Keir Starmer’s vision of the great “unbinding” of Britain save the Union?]