In the years that followed the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the Scottish National Party swept all before it. It hailed the 55-45 vote for the status quo as victory in defeat and won a landslide at the 2015 general election from which the once-hegemonic Scottish Labour Party has never recovered. Brexit and the election of Boris Johnson – a prime minister who is loathed in Scotland – made many believe that independence was inevitable. After a fleeting recovery for the Conservatives in Scotland in 2017 under the leadership of Theresa May, an ardent unionist, and Ruth Davidson at Holyrood, the SNP won a fourth consecutive term in office in 2021 – a feat that would have astonished the fathers of Scottish devolution.
But the nationalists’ forward march has been halted. Though the SNP remains dominant and formally committed to a second independence referendum in 2023, this outcome appears increasingly implausible. A recent poll by YouGov showed that only 36 per cent of Scots support a vote next year and that a majority – 53 per cent – would oppose independence.
That the independence cause has stalled is no surprise. Though the SNP has been resolute in its opposition to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, its anti-Trident stance, and its coalition with the anti-Nato Greens, is at odds with the new geopolitical mood. The world has changed. As our political editor Andrew Marr writes on page 16, “The war and Putin’s nuclear threats have made Nato more popular right across Europe – and British nuclear weapons more relevant to much middle-ground opinion of the kind the SNP needs to convert to nationalism. A time of sudden Western unity, felt in Scotland as much as anywhere else, is not, you might think, an ideal time to insist on the break-up of the United Kingdom.”
The SNP’s support for unilateral disarmament provides cautious voters with a further excuse to oppose independence and Westminster with a further excuse to veto a second referendum. Brexit may have strengthened the political argument for independence – Scotland was removed from the EU against its will – but it weakened the policy case. Should Scotland seek to rejoin the EU, as the SNP intends, it would face a hard border with the rest of the UK, with which it does three times as much trade as with the EU.
In a darker economic climate, the costs rather than the benefits of independence appear ever clearer. The most recent estimate suggests that an independent Scotland would inherit a budget deficit of 22.4 per cent, by far the largest of any European country. A true nationalist is prepared to make economic sacrifices for the sake of the cause (as Brexit showed) but voters already enduring a cost-of-living crisis are more sceptical. As speculation about a putative Scottish currency grows, people will inevitably question how much their pensions, assets and savings would be worth.
It is for these reasons, as Rory Scothorne has written in the New Statesman, that Scottish nationalism is “simultaneously safe and stuck; unlike Ukraine or Ireland, Scotland isn’t so much a cause as a complaint”.
Rather than Scottish nationalism, it is Irish nationalism that may emerge as the more politically disruptive force. Opinion polls suggest that in the Northern Ireland Assembly election on 5 May Sinn Féin will become the largest party for the first time, and it may also go on to triumph in the Republic’s next general election. Support for the Union in Northern Ireland has fallen below the 50 per cent threshold and a border poll both there and in the Republic in the next ten or 15 years is conceivable.
As Martin Fletcher writes in his report on page 26, by creating a new border between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland, Brexit has heightened the contradictions of the post-imperial settlement. In 2021, to offset the fall in trade with Great Britain, the troubled province’s exports to the south rose by 65 per cent, while its imports from the south grew by 54 per cent. Jim Allister, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, calls this “a stepping stone to all-Ireland unity”.
But rather than resolving its contradictions, the rickety British state – Ukania in Tom Nairn’s coinage – may yet muddle along. The Disunited Kingdom, a land of permanent dissent, could endure for longer than once seemed likely.
This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma