The reaction to Theresa May's Scottish referendum snub should trouble Unionists

A backdrop of negative headlines makes the job of preventing Scottish independence even harder.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The next Scottish independence referendum will be harder to win than the last one. Consider the following: in September 2014, the conventional wisdom was that the Conservative government would be out in eight months. Now we expect them to be in power for decades.

Last time, the Unionist parties fought closely together, amplifying their central message and lending cross-party credence to Better Together's claims. This time, the parties of the Union will run their own campaigns in the same manner that they approached the Remain side of the referendum.

And that's before you factor in Brexit, the fact that Scotland voted to stay in the EU and the effects of a bad deal - or no deal at all - on Unionist support. So the job of keeping the United Kingdom together is harder for Theresa May than it was for David Cameron.

But that doesn't mean that the decisions are harder. On the matter of whether or not the SNP should be able to hold their referendum, the polling is clear. A majority of Scots don't want a referendum re-run, across the Yes-No division. But a majority of Scots - again, one that stretches across Yes and No voters - don't want Westminster to block the Scottish Parliament from holding another.

As one senior veteran of Better Together despaired yesterday, the decision is a "no-brainer": vote against holding a referendum at Holyrood, but if it passes, sigh and blame the SNP. (For the Scottish Conservatives, who have the most prominent Unionist and the most popular politician at centre-forward, there's another prize to be had, too: an opportunity to cohere much of the No vote under a Tory flag.)

Here's what not to do: generate headlines like "Crisis as May blocks poll" - that's the splash of the Scottish edition of the Times. 'Now is not the time' - May rebuffs SNP over indyref 2" - that's the Scotsman. "May: Brexit comes before Scotland" - that's the i. "May: Now is not the time for new vote" is the Scottish Express' splash, while the Daily Record mocks up Theresa May as Little Britain's Vicky Pollard.

But as I've written before the prize in all political contests are the news that people absorb even when they are trying to avoid it. The newsbreaks on music radio - where once again "May blocks referendum" was the headline. The frontpage of the Metro, half-glimpsed by commuters in and around Edinburgh and Glasgow - "Scots' fury as May blocks a referendum" is their splash.

May has also implicitly conceded the principle that Brexit is a change that makes a referendum re-run fine in principle - it's merely the right of the Scottish Parliament to set the timing that is being contested.

This is not the backdrop or the tactical thinking that the Unionist side is going to need to have if they want to avoid defeat, whenever the next referendum may be.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.