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22 October 2021

Nicola Sturgeon should not assume that demography is destiny

There is no guarantee that younger Scots who support independence will continue to do so later in life.

By Chris Deerin

My Catholic secondary school in central Scotland was typical of its time. It was full of Celtic-daft, testosterone-filled boys who were caught up in the half-understood struggle for a united Ireland. The IRA, then still setting off its bombs in British city centres, was talked of as a romantic and glamorous organisation. Jotters had edgy slogans scribbled across them, including the notorious Tiocfaidh ár lá, “our day will come”. Teachers would demand the offending words be covered up with fresh sheets of wrapping paper or offcuts of wallpaper.

This childhood experience is one of the reasons why I’ve always been uncomfortable with debates about Scottish independence and demographics. There has in general been extreme and welcome wariness about comparing the movement for a separate Scottish state with the torrid and tragic one across the Irish Sea, or about pursuing like-minded arguments. Scotland’s independence campaign has, to its credit, historically been democratic and peaceful. There might be sectarian hatred between Celtic and Rangers fans in the west of Scotland, but it was not allowed to bleed into the nation’s politics.

Over the past decade (and arguably before) that has changed a bit. A look at Twitter feeds and the various flags attached to avatars will show you that it is common now for Celtic fans to align with Scottish independence and for Rangers fans to support the Union. There are, of course, many people on both sides of the football divide who buck that trend, but it’s there.

It is also becoming more common, post-Brexit, to talk about Scottish independence and a reunited Ireland in the same breath. This has been enabled by Brexit, a spasm of English nationalism that has strengthened the legitimacy of and support for other nationalisms in the UK.

[see also: Brexit isn’t done – and Boris Johnson can’t answer the Irish Question]

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Senior Scottish politicians now openly compare mechanisms for securing departure from the UK. Alister Jack, the Tory Scottish Secretary, spoke recently of “the trigger in my mind, and I look to the situation in Northern Ireland for instance, if 60 per cent of people wanted a referendum and that position was sustained for over 12 months, then I can see there would be a desire for a referendum”. 

Angus Robertson, the SNP’s constitution secretary, pointed to how the Good Friday Agreement gives the secretary of state for Northern Ireland the power to hold a border poll if a majority of voters want one. The agreement specifies a seven-year gap between referendums, allowing Robertson to make the factual statement that “the distance between 2014 and 2021 is seven years”.

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It is, of course, a tribute to how the politics of Northern Ireland has changed that these kind of comments can now be made. But – and I accept it may be my own experiences talking – I still find comparisons between the two campaigns a little uncomfortable.

It was more than 30 years ago, in my high school days, that I first heard the argument that Irish reunification was only a matter of time. Catholics in the north were having more children than Protestants. When the balance tipped and the former became the majority of the population, Ireland would choose to become one again. The bluntness of this argument when deployed by politicians – we will outbreed the other side; they will die off quicker – always carries a sting of shock.

Nicola Sturgeon is the latest to adapt it to her purposes. In an interview with the Financial Times earlier this month, the First Minister warned Unionists opposed to a second independence referendum that “I’ve got democracy on my side… if they think it’s about playing a waiting game, I’ve probably got time on my side as well. You look at the demographics of the support for independence – well, I’m not sure that’s going to get you out of this conundrum.”

This is something you increasingly hear from independence supporters. And they would, ostensibly, seem to have a point. Although Scotland is split roughly 50-50 on its constitutional future, independence enjoys a lead among every age group other than pensioners, who make up a proportionately large share of the population. Sturgeon’s point, and it has been made by others, is that as older voters die, majority-support would shift towards independence.

We could be about to find out whether this argument holds. With excellent timing, this year’s Northern Ireland Census is predicted to show a nationalist majority for the first time in the North’s 100-year existence. We may see evidential support for Sturgeon declaring that she has “probably got time on my side”.

The change may not run as smoothly as the First Minister thinks, however. Academics point out that communities in Northern Ireland are moving away from traditional unionist/nationalist identities, and that commitment to a united Ireland doesn’t break down cleanly across religious lines – far from it. As such, there is no guarantee that the looming shift in demographics would mean the North choosing to join the Republic. 

Of course, the Scottish demographics Sturgeon refers to are not linked to religion, but to constitutional opinion. But one might still consider similarities in the complacent mindset that her comments suggest – it is a little like my school friends of three decades ago boasting it was just a matter of time before Irish nationalists had their way. It has proven a bit more complicated than that.

[see also: Will Scotland’s dizzying quest for a global role ever end?]

There is no guarantee, for example, that younger Scots who currently support independence will still do so once they have careers and mortgages and children – once the economic challenges of independence would more directly impact them. There is no certainty that the current totemic nature of the constitution will continue to dominate Scottish politics – even as our education system, our economy and our public health continue to underperform compared to the rest of the UK. There is no guarantee that when Sturgeon departs Bute House – which is surely only a few years away – she will be replaced by an SNP leader with equal charisma and pulling power.

The British economy might strongly rebound. The unpopularity of Boris Johnson in Scotland may not outlast him, and a more acceptable Conservative leader (ie almost anyone else) or, in time, a Labour prime minister may soften views on independence. Not everyone who currently supports the SNP is as hard-line on the issue as the fire-breathing Nat lifers.

There is simply no guarantee that waiting it out will be a winning strategy for the SNP. Life, people and politics have a habit of moving with time. One might argue that, given everything that is currently in its favour, the cause of independence should be almost out of sight in the polls. Yet it is not, and the Nats have so far failed to win that second referendum or persuade a majority of Scots that one is necessary.

In the end, politics must be about persuasion more than slogans. Whatever today’s kids are scribbling on their jotters, they might take a very different view of the world tomorrow.