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16 June 2022

Why is Nicola Sturgeon gambling on a Scottish independence referendum no one wants?

The anger in the Yes movement is growing, a Labour government is on the horizon, and the SNP is desperate to squeeze a vote in before it’s too late.

By Chris Deerin

In-de-pen-dence re-fe-ren-dum: the tip of the tongue takes a trip of eight mad lunges around the palate, ending with a whumping close of the lips, as if one has just swallowed a fly.

Having covered Scottish politics for something like 25 years, I feel like the phrase has carved a groove in my mouth. Spin and repeat. Rewind and replay. Etiolation and diminishing returns. Perhaps this is why, when Nicola Sturgeon this week launched her latest campaign towards a referendum, there was little sense of it lighting lives or firing loins. Even pro-Yessers seemed to respond as if the SNP is merely slouching towards Bannockburn, driven more by muscle memory and the need for internal husbandry than desire or a genuine belief that the prize is in sight.

My own initial response on reading Sturgeon’s new paper, the first in a series analysing the possibilities of leaving the UK, was a mix of exhaustion and frustration. Here’s why:

* The Britain portrayed in the paper’s endless data charts is a basket case, a global laggard, a relentlessly foul hell of economic misery and social savagery, its wretched population living lives of blunted opportunity in medieval conditions. By the time I’d finished, I felt steamrollered. And bleakly resentful. I looked out the window. I thought of the local bookshop I’d been to that morning, started by two young women entrepreneurs and packed with chattering students from all over the world, each making a single coffee last for hours. The Scottish government’s highly partial, ultra-weaponised, taxpayer-funded, civil servant-authored assault on my country – for all that country’s many and obvious flaws – irritated me.

* I considered Nicola Sturgeon, a politician and person for whom I retain some admiration, launching the report from her podium in Bute House. Beside her stood wee Patrick Harvie, the leader of the Scottish Greens, a party that is explicitly against economic growth, private enterprise, Nato and Israel, and one that holds two posts in the Scottish government. I thought about how weak and misdirected the independence movement has become that the big push requires Sturgeon to have embraced, and have smirking beside her on equal terms, the leader of a radical party that has eight seats at Holyrood and that won fewer than 35,000 constituency votes at the recent Holyrood election. I wondered how middle Scotland could be persuaded to support a cause that seems to be veering ever closer to the Greens’ (to me) crazy, juvenile outlook on the world.

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* I thought about the SNP’s record in government since 2007, the long tail of failure now dragging behind the party, its inability – or refusal – to engage in public service or economic reforms that might have improved the lot of ordinary Scots and their children. Fifteen years of grievance politics, of increased centralisation and control, of leaving the powerful gears and levers of devolution largely untouched beyond the odd tokenistic dunt.

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* I hate the fact that the SNP makes me feel like I’m somehow defending Boris Johnson and this appalling Tory government, both of which I loathe beyond measure, simply because I’m unconvinced that leaving Britain is the right thing to do. Similarly, I wish Keir Starmer would get his finger out so that we can count on a Labour win at the next general election.

* Sturgeon is like a cynical optometrist, always holding up the same, increasingly dog-eared indy prospectus at slightly different angles and distances. “What do you think of it now? And now? And what about this… any better?”

* I recall the time we were driving along the side of Loch Lomond with my then-toddler daughter screaming over and over, for what felt like hours, “I… WANT… CHEESANONYUNCRISPS”, to the point that I considered swinging the car into the water. Is this how freedom is gained – the UK ground into submission, bored into extinction? Will it all end with a tearful, taut, “you can have your bloody cheese and onion crisps if you’ll just stop shouting at us”?

You don’t have to be an economist (I’m certainly not) to know that you can do pretty much anything with statistics if you select them carefully enough. You might drop certain comparator countries that undermine your case, or choose data that is unflattering to the UK while leaving out any that casts it in a better light. You can choose your years carefully. You can mention certain parts of a particular Scandinavian country’s economy or social policy, but not others, or its wildly different culture. It’s certainly easy, in an era in which Britain has been considerably less than it might, to pick it apart. As any half-decent writer knows, you can do a lot with elision, omission, assertion, supposition and choice of noun, verb and adverb. You can make your case – or you can make its opposite, just as easily.

But go to any of the nations mentioned in the report and you’ll find locals grumbling about the terrible failings of their government and their society – it’s what people do. Some voters have the instinct to blow the whole thing up – Brexit, say, or Scottish independence – and that’s up to them. But it’s no less noble to want to stay and fight, to find better leaders with better policies, to stick with it through the hard times, to feel a genuine and deep solidarity – unfashionable word though that is – with those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who are having a similarly crappy time. How does Scotland leaving the UK, effectively leaving behind an in-built Tory majority across the remainder of the UK, help them? Should we not care?

It’s always much, much simpler to attack than it is to defend or build. The UK is there to be savaged, an easy target, a sitting duck. But there remain questions about an independent Scotland to which there are no convincing and reassuring answers, because there are no convincing and reassuring answers. There are no great options when it comes to an independent Scotland’s currency, only bad ones and less bad ones, at least for a while. The border with England, a nation that along with Wales and Northern Ireland takes 60 per cent of Scotland’s trade, cannot be wished away or sorted by SNP fiat. An independent Scotland seems to be aiming for a degree of moral, if muddled, purity, as with the demand for the removal of nuclear weapons from its soil. But every action is met with a reaction – on trade, on nukes, our much larger, more powerful and thoroughly hacked-off neighbour will have something to say.

EU membership would come with a heavy load, especially re-entering as a small nation with little influence – becoming a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker, in the jargon. Just because Brexit was a terrible decision doesn’t mean that the European Union isn’t an often horrible, alien institution, a bully (especially towards smaller states), and a bureaucratic nightmare. Joining the EU is not the same thing as getting a cub scout badge sewn on your jumper because you’ve completed a virtuous task.

In the end, you can’t force people to be something they’re not sure they are, or to want something they’re sure they don’t. Where is this great push for a second referendum? Where is the great increase in support for independence? Who are these people so unflustered by the cost-of-living crisis, by whether their salary will keep up with inflation, by the strain of covering the cost of heating their home this winter, or the continuing impact of lockdown on their children’s mental health, or the horrors of the Ukraine war, that they want to inflict the turmoil of an independence referendum and the long process of disentanglement? I live in an ordinary town in the middle of Scotland, far from the Holyrood bubble. Everyone is talking about the cost of living. No one is talking about independence.

The SNP knows what it’s about – it wouldn’t have enjoyed the success it has otherwise – so maybe I’m wrong. But I can’t help feeling that Sturgeon is acting from a position of weakness – the sand in the egg timer is running out, the anger in the Yes movement is growing, a Labour government is on the horizon – and is desperate to squeeze a vote in before it’s too late.

Voters can smell this stuff a mile off. The polls suggest that the First Minister is choosing to run against the mood and interests of the majority of the electorate. She is taking a huge gamble.

[See also: Why Britain is once again the sick man of Europe]