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15 April 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 6:12am

Should Boris Johnson call a snap Scottish independence referendum?

Nicola Sturgeon is right to fear that an early vote could favour the unionist side.

By Chris Deerin

Why not just give them their damn referendum? It’s a sentiment one hears more and more as time passes. There is a certain type of exasperated unionist who has simply tired of the waiting game, who has lost patience with the constitutional igneous rock that encrusts Scottish politics. Time to smash it once and for all, and deal with whatever follows.

“I’m coming round to IndyRef2 immediately. Short and sharp. Twelve months to decide. Either way.” This text arrived from a Tory candidate for Holyrood during Tuesday’s televised Scottish leaders’ debate, as attempts to discuss piercingly important policy issues were once again bulldozed by the national question. As one senior UK cabinet minister told the Sunday Times: “I don’t see how we keep saying ‘no’ for ever. The time to do it would be in the middle of economic chaos, not when it’s all looking rosy.”

[Hear more from Chris Deerin on the New Statesman podcast]

From a unionist perspective, there is in fact sound logic – if some risk – to the idea of rolling the dice on a second referendum. The SNP has staggered through the most bruising period in its history, which has opened fraught splits in the Yes movement, not least the forming of Alex Salmond’s Alba Party. As a long-standing government now seeking its fourth term in office there is a sense of some fatigue setting in.

Though the Nats remain 20 points or so ahead in the polls, and are perhaps on course for the fabled Holyrood “super-majority” along with the Greens and Alba, this odd coalition may do more damage than good to the independence cause. The daily presence of hardline MSPs under Salmond’s banner will likely alarm more voters than it will inspire. Alba’s ludicrous political broadcast of a doddery-sounding Robert the Bruce pledging to “break the spine of English superiority” is a useful indication of the party’s intent and cultural gaucheness.

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[see also: Scottish independence poll tracker: will Scotland vote to leave the UK?]

There is also the reality that support for pro-independence parties outstrips support for independence itself. For much of the past year, Yes was consistently polling somewhere in the mid-50s, quickening nationalist hearts and suggesting an inevitability to the process. But the polls have now returned to 50-50, suggesting Scotland is as divided as ever. Only around 30 per cent of Scots want a referendum in the next few years – more seem to favour keeping it on a five-year horizon.

Unionists might also consider, like the cabinet minister quoted above, that a snap referendum would take advantage of the uncertainty currently felt by mainstream Scotland. Emerging from lockdown, many people face an unstable jobs market and are worried about the damage done to their children’s education and mental health. The consequences of Brexit remain largely unfelt, and there is a sense that this is a time to get heads down as we seek a return to normality. Throw the choice of independence into this mix, with all its attendant instability and division, and it’s possible to see voters shrinking from the prospect. This is before the still-powerful economic arguments against independence are advanced in the heat of a campaign – on currency, trade, pensions and more.

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Another – and perhaps the best – reason for going early is that Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t want to. As Better Together strategist Blair McDougall says in our Scottish election podcast, the First Minister has been guilty of playing to her tribe rather than the country at large in the early weeks of the Holyrood campaign. Her demand for a referendum within the first half of the next parliament and her government’s introduction of a draft independence bill in the last parliament’s dying days feel like the acts of a leader who is no longer fully in charge of the Yes movement, and who is obligated to toss them some raw meat.

In the SNP manifesto published today, Sturgeon wrote that if she were to be re-elected as First Minister, she and her government would “focus all of our energies in steering the country safely through and out of this crisis. For me, there is no greater priority.” These are not the words of a leader who is confident the electorate shares her burning desire to leave the UK.

Boris Johnson seems to have his heart set on delivering a flat “no” to the possibility of a referendum, whatever the result of the Scottish election on 6 May. Those of us who have been warning for some time that this is likely to prove an unsustainable position in the face of an SNP overall majority were given succour by two recent reports from former senior civil servants. Philip Rycroft, the former permanent secretary at the Brexit department, warned Johnson’s “assertive and muscular style of unionism” and “imperious disregard” for devolved policies risked pushing Scotland out of the UK.

Meanwhile, Ciaran Martin, a former constitution director at the Cabinet Office who was involved in agreeing terms for the first independence referendum, said blocking a second vote would “fundamentally” change the nature of the Union, from one based on consent to one “based on force of law”. It is hard to see Scots tolerating such an arrangement in the long term.

I suspect Johnson lacks the guts to opt for a snap referendum. But there is nonetheless a case for the Unionist side to hold it on their own terms and to their own timetable, and head off years of constitutional wrangling and the danger of growing Scottish bitterness. “Twelve months to decide. Either way.”

[see also: Podcast: why SNP “hegemony” presents an opportunity for an “insurgent” opposition in Scotland]