Scotland is moving towards independence — and unionists don’t know how to stop it

Opponents of independence have been left to hope that Scots will eventually tire of an endless constitutional row. 

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A poll has come along and rattled the windows of Scottish democracy. This week, Tory peer Michael Ashcroft and Holyrood magazine released a survey of Scottish opinion that found 46 per cent would now vote Yes in a second independence referendum, compared to 43 per cent for No. Once the don’t knows are excluded, this works out as 52 per cent for Yes, and 48 per cent for No.

It’s just one poll and all that, but the data should hardly come as a surprise. Years of tumult and dysfunction at Westminster, the ascension of Boris Johnson, and the looming threat of a no-deal Brexit (and indeed any kind of Brexit) have corroded Scottish loyalty to the UK. The capture of Labour by the hard left denies many Scots their traditional safe haven. The contrast between the relative stature of Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson on one hand, and the leadership and political inclinations of their Westminster equivalents on the other, is stark.

Some of the poll’s other findings explain the direction of travel. A majority believes that Scotland would vote Yes in a second referendum, while only three in ten thought Scotland would vote to remain part of the UK. More than 60 per cent, including two-thirds of Labour voters, think Brexit makes Scottish independence more likely. In a second EU referendum, 67 per cent would vote to remain (62 per cent voted to remain in 2016)

The poll, then, has not emerged in a vacuum. It perhaps suggests that an increasing number of Scots are finally losing patience with the self-harm being inflicted on Britain, and are struggling to see an acceptable resolution. In fact, it’s a surprise that the pro-Yes figure isn’t even higher. As one senior SNP figure put it to me this week, “the truth is we should be closer to 60 per cent. It doesn’t feel like Nicola and John [Swinney] have had their eye on the ball.” 

Nevertheless, the findings indicate significant movement among the electorate. Anecdotally, many No-voting acquaintances are in something of a holding pattern – they have very much lost their love for and any reflexive patriotism towards the UK, and even if they remain unconvinced independence is the answer, they no longer regard the idea as unthinkable or disastrous, as they did in 2014. They are there to be won over.

But in a sense, the poll changes nothing. Even one of its other findings, that 47 per cent are in favour of a new referendum in the next two years, with 45 per cent opposed, doesn’t alter the political reality. Nicola Sturgeon may have tweeted this week that a "majority of people in Scotland now want #Indyref2 and would vote for independence – attempts by the Tories to block Scotland’s right to choose our own future are undemocratic and unsustainable" but there will be no independence referendum before the next Holyrood election in 2021. Put simply, the British government will not give its permission for one. 

The result of that election will surely be the key moment. If the SNP can win an overall majority at Holyrood, or if a majority can be assembled with the independence-supporting Greens, then they will have a fresh mandate for another referendum and Westminster would almost certainly have to allow it. But if there is no pro-independence majority then the chance will have gone, perhaps for a considerable time.

When I speak to senior players from 2014’s Better Together campaign these days, I find the overwhelming feeling is one of resignation. They know Scotland might well choose to quit the UK, and they are not very sure what to do about it, or whether anything can be done. Deploying the Union flag more regularly north of the border seems unlikely to do the trick.

One former Labour minister has been reduced to pinning his hopes on the possibility that the independence debate is just a phase, and that Scotland will do a Quebec: eventually tiring of an endless constitutional row and choosing to focus on other matters such as education and the economy. “It could be a generational thing, and the next generation, with their digital connections around the world, may see identity differently,” he said. But can unionists really just hunker down and hope to wait out the storm?

Meanwhile, the SNP is watching the Brexit process closely. One of the more compelling arguments against a Yes vote in 2014 was that a border between Scotland and England would be problematic, as most of Scotland’s trade is with its southern neighbour. If Brexiteers can find a solution to the Northern Irish border with the Republic, Scottish nationalists could have a precedent to work from. They are also confident that they now have a strengthened position on currency and legacy debt, the issues which haunted them in 2014.

 “Scotland’s on the move,” tweeted SNP minister Fiona Hyslop after the Ashcroft poll emerged. Just quite how far and drastic that movement will ultimately be is now the question.

 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).