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30 September 2021

Why the opponents of Scottish independence are more divided than ever

The SNP’s enemies now seem to be pursuing entirely disparate and even conflicting strategies.

By Chris Deerin

When our three daughters were small, my wife took them with her to the local vet’s surgery, where the cat had an appointment. The vet, a stiff kind of chap, was poking away at the poor beast when he suddenly froze, looked around the room and turned to my wife in irritation. “They’re all doing different things,” he said.

It was true: the eldest had stolen his stethoscope and was trying to listen to her own heart, the middle had unravelled a roll of tissue across the room, while the baby was licking hair off the floor. The phrase “they’re all doing different things” immediately became part of our internal family patter.

I thought of this when reading that Boris Johnson’s ministers have been told to stop talking about Scottish independence because it only serves to keep the issue high up the political agenda. The SNP’s various opponents now seem to be pursuing entirely disparate and even conflicting strategies in trying to prevent the break-up of the UK. They’re all doing different things.

The Tories can’t even agree among themselves. At Holyrood, bovver-boy leader Douglas Ross rarely misses an opportunity to raise the alarm about a second referendum, aware that his party benefits from its hardline position far more than from whatever its policies are on, say, the economy or the education system. He wants to keep the chilly prospect of independence up in lights. Meanwhile, his colleagues in London are apparently adopting a “show, don’t tell” policy, with the UK government spending large sums money in Scotland and hoping the seemingly insoluble independence problem might simply go away.

Labour offers a mirror image of this. In his mammoth speech to the Labour conference in Brighton this week (29 September), Keir Starmer was keen to stress that his is “the party of the Union”. “Scotland is in the unfortunate position of having two bad governments – the Tories at Westminster and the SNP at Holyrood,” he said. “The SNP and the Tories walk in lockstep. They both exploit the constitutional divide for their own ends.”

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The fight to save the Union is about more than dry debates over economics, he insisted. “We are more progressive together. We are more secure together. We are a bigger presence in the world together. We are greater as Britain than we would be apart.” (Interestingly, I favoured the latter arguments in 2014; next time, in the light of, well, everything that has happened since, I’d probably focus on the economics.)

Again, Starmer’s position contrasts with Labour at Holyrood, where leader Anas Sarwar prefers to avoid discussing independence. Where the SNP and the Tories in Scotland benefit from the constitutional perma-debate, Labour is lost somewhere in the middle, trusted neither by separatists nor hardcore Unionists. Sarwar really does want to talk about the economy and schools. His problem is getting anyone to listen.

[see also: Why the SNP must stop hoarding power in Edinburgh]

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An English friend expressed puzzlement this week at the hostile and antagonistic relationship between the Conservatives and Labour north of the border. Surely, if independence is the dominant issue, the two main pro-UK parties should act in concert to stop the SNP from securing its referendum, and should work together to unseat the nationalists from power in Edinburgh, perhaps even to the extent of forming a governing coalition?

This is just not how things can work. Labour continues to suffer backlash after sharing a voice and a stage with the Conservatives during the 2014 Better Together campaign. It was after that, and partly as a result of the alliance, that Labour lost 40 of its Scottish seats at Westminster in the 2015 general election, leaving it with just one. The extraordinary rise of the SNP, which in a single election went from six seats to 56, has defined everything that has since followed. Labour has never recovered, and the Nats have never faltered.

This suggests that if there is a second referendum, there will be a series of No campaigns: a non-party one, much like the Leave operation during the Brexit debate, and individual political campaigns from Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems. Whether this isolation will help or hinder a No vote remains to be seen.

It does seem as if the Unionist parties at least have the benefit of time. Despite Nicola Sturgeon’s rabble-rousing, there is little prospect of a vote taking place on her proposed timetable, which is by late 2023, and maybe not even after that.

From a certain perspective, it is extraordinary that with the fates as they are – with Boris Johnson’s deep unpopularity in Scotland, resentment about Brexit, Sturgeon’s superior performance during the Covid pandemic and ongoing personal popularity, empty supermarket shelves and garage forecourts – the independence movement is not out of sight in the polls. It is hard to foresee a more euphonious environment in which the SNP might make its case and win it. But support for independence remains stuck somewhere between 45 and 50 per cent, even before the significant economic challenges of separation are megaphoned by the No sides during a referendum campaign. This is arguably Sturgeon’s greatest failure.

A couple of years ago, when, post-Brexit, independence felt a more imminent and likely outcome than it currently does, a gloomy former New Labour cabinet minister felt that unionists had almost run out of options. He told me he was pinning his hopes on the Scottish electorate ultimately getting bored with the constitutional question and focusing instead on climate change or the global opportunities offered by technology. It didn’t seem much to hang your hat on.

The polls suggest independence remains the preferred option of Scots up to middle age, with only the elderly favouring continued union. As with Northern Ireland, there are nationalists who believe this gradual demographic shift makes the break-up of the UK inevitable, even if on a longer timescale than they would like. This relies, though, on the absence of a traditional political cycle (to be fair, it has been missing since 2007). It relies too on Labour forever failing to capture Downing Street, and that, in the event it does win power, this doesn’t then bolster the Scottish party and attract soft pro-independence voters back towards the Union.

Perhaps this will all work out as the Nats would like, but the future of the UK is locked in a chaotic stalemate and is surely unlikely to stay that way ad infinitum. It’s not just the pro-British parties who will have to try everything and anything if they are to get their way.

[see also: Can Scottish Labour ever escape the political wilderness?]