The surge in support for Scottish independence – and the future of the Union – is rightly recognised to be one of the defining issues of the next decade. This is not, as the former Conservative chancellor George Osborne recently claimed, merely because of Brexit: there are deeper forces at play. Ever since the SNP formed a devolved minority government in 2007, the New Statesman has cautioned Westminster politicians that they ignore the Scottish question at their peril.
This warning was vindicated when the SNP won a majority in 2011 and the Yes campaign achieved 45 per cent of the vote in the 2014 independence referendum. The collapse of the once hegemonic Scottish Labour Party at the 2015 general election removed the main unionist opposition. Only Ruth Davidson, when she was the Scottish Conservative leader, has since dented the SNP’s aura of invincibility.
In 2011 we suggested that the SNP’s second victory made it “the natural party of devolved government”. The Labour Party under Ed Miliband did not listen. The SNP has since become something much bigger: a truly national party, even a party state. “I am confident the cause will prevail,” writes the SNP MP Joanna Cherry in this week’s diary on page nine.
Should Nicola Sturgeon’s party win a comfortable majority at this May’s Holyrood election – as the forecast model on our website suggests – it will have an unarguable mandate for a second independence referendum. Some Conservatives suggest Boris Johnson should “say no” to any SNP demand for a referendum, especially during the pandemic. In the absence of a Section 30 order from Westminster, the SNP would be left with the option of staging its own unilateral vote and challenging the British government to take it to court.
But a strategy of obstinacy in London is ultimately unsustainable. If the Union is to be meaningful it must rest upon consent, not coercion. It is not, however, only opponents of independence who must confront difficult choices.
We pay the SNP the compliment of taking its ideas and positions seriously, and so ask this question: what would secession entail? Though Brexit has strengthened the political case for independence (a majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU), it has arguably weakened the economic one. Were Scotland to seek to rejoin the EU, as our Scotland editor Chris Deerin notes in his cover story, it would face a trade border with the rest of the UK, with which it does three times as much trade as with the EU. An independent Scotland would embrace freedom of movement. England would have a different immigration policy outside the EU.
There is also the currency question. An independent Scotland could either retain the pound and leave the Bank of England in control of monetary policy, or it could embark on a painful and uncertain journey to a new currency, with pensions, mortgages and savings redenominated. The increasingly factional SNP remains riven on this issue.
The Yes campaign could seek to marginalise such questions, as the Leave side did successfully during the 2016 Brexit referendum. Sovereignty, it is said, trumps prosperity. But the Scottish people deserve better than evasion and obfuscation.
Yet the value of a nation and of self-determination cannot only be measured in pounds and pence. The progressive case for Britishness is that it has provided a broad umbrella under which multiple identities can shelter. Ethnic minority groups, in particular, feel at ease with such civic nationalism in a way they do not always with Englishness or, indeed, Scottishness. The SNP should ask what would be lost as well as gained for all the peoples of these islands from the break-up of Britain.
Since the 1980s, Thatcherism, austerity, Brexit and, now, Boris Johnson’s premiership have been imposed on Scotland against its democratic will. This is precisely why the almost 314-year old Union has never appeared more fractured. We have an open mind on the Scottish national question and will continue writing about it, in the magazine and on our website, with the seriousness it deserves.
This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair