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3 September 2020

Boris Johnson’s independence problem is in England, not Scotland

The government’s difficulties reflect Scottish perceptions of its record and its agenda, not the terms of divorce after independence.

By Stephen Bush

Vote Leave’s success was simple: it avoided mentioning the initial disruption that Brexit would cause, and talked broadly about all the possible flavours of exit without being pinned down to any single end state, while associating leaving the European Union with a whole host of other, already popular policies (such as spending more on the NHS or lowering immigration). The campaign avoided discussing the sharper choices and no-win scenarios. And it ran, hard, against the record of the incumbent Conservative government. 

The question that now occupies an increasing amount of the government’s time is this: how do we stop the SNP doing to us what Vote Leave did to David Cameron? The role of today’s government’s central players in winning the Brexit referendum brought Cameron’s premiership to an abrupt end, a little over a year after his great electoral triumph. Now they fear that Scottish independence could do the same to them.

“Plan A” is simple: you can’t lose a referendum if you don’t hold one. But the government’s “Save the Union” team (whose de facto head is Michael Gove) and the SNP are united in the realisation that while technically the battle that matters as far holding another referendum is concerned is the 2021 Scottish parliament election, what actually matters is whether it’s politically weatherable to avoid holding one. 

Don’t forget that there was a majority in the 2016 Scottish parliament to seek a fresh referendum, and a majority of Scottish voters thought that Brexit was enough to activate the Anglo-Scottish Union for the SNP’s manifesto commitment to hold a fresh vote in the event of a “material change”. Yet voters didn’t really want a referendum, and were happy to have it both ways, telling pollsters that the Scottish parliament ought to be able to hold one if it wanted, while making that scenario less likely by tactically voting against the SNP at the 2017 general election. 

Both sides know full well that what matters is not that Nicola Sturgeon will ask for a referendum and that Boris Johnson will say no, but how that event is viewed by the Scottish public. The fear that, in practice, Johnson will be unable to refuse another independence referendum is why thoughts are turning to “Plan B”: how the government would actually win a second vote. 

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Over at the Spectator, James Forsyth moots one possible option: for England and Scotland to negotiate the terms of divorce first and then hold a referendum. You can see how this works in theory, as almost any political proposition loses, rather than gains, support as it becomes more specific. (See for instance support for “taxes on pollution”, a more popular proposition than, say, fuel duty.) 

But it’s not clear to me how this process would command legitimacy or trust. The Scottish government would surely argue that negotiations conducted before an independence vote would have different incentives for the rest of the UK than one afterwards: a pre-referendum negotiation would be about discouraging a Yes vote, while a post-referendum negotiation would be about making a Yes vote workable for both sides. 

And, of course, this would be true! It’s also true that a number of very difficult questions and challenges would not go away, and that a vote for Scottish independence would, just as the Brexit vote has, pave the way for a long period of adjustment. (And that this would be harder and longer, because leaving a union in which you have pooled your sovereignty and policy for four decades is less complex than leaving one in which you have done so for three centuries.)

The problem, though, is that landing this message is difficult, to put it mildly, if you have voted in favour of leaving one union. While they are not tasks of equivalent size, the principle (to go through a period of painful adjustment in order to better maximise your sovereignty) is one and the same. 

The difficult truth is that, while the battle over Scotland’s future will be decided in Scotland, it is not solely about Scotland. The perception of Sturgeon’s greater competence compared to Boris Johnson, the perception that the choice is between a long but finite period of adjustment to independence as opposed to the endless grinding incompetence of the Tory government in England: these are perceptions that can only be changed by changing how the Conservative government in England operates or by replacing it.