Why Boris Johnson could yet agree to a second Scottish independence referendum

The Prime Minister could conclude that the status quo is untenable and offer a new vote including a devo-max option. 

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With his trial over sexual misconduct allegations looming, Alex Salmond has been uncharacteristically quiet in recent months. This week, however, the fifth anniversary of the Scottish independence referendum was an opportunity he could not resist.

The former SNP leader and first minister tweeted that “If I had but known 5 years ago that Boris Johnson would become Prime Minister and Britain would be poised on the brink of a hard Brexit then I would have delayed the Scottish referendum and now looked forward to a 60% plus Yes vote...”

Ever calculating the odds, Salmond can scent what appears to be growing division between public opinion north and south of the border. It’s not hard to find. On Facebook, an ageing friend of mine, a long-time unionist, delivered his judgement this week: “My heart is broken by what is happening as I watch the most tolerant nation in the world quickly degenerating into intolerance … I have come to the conclusion – sadly I must say – that it is time to end the union … I think we in Scotland have to build on what we have and join with our friends in Europe to maintain a society based on freedom and justice.”

This is what the SNP is counting on – people like my friend who find the tensions of Brexit and the departure of the main UK parties to the extremities too much to bear. In sorrow and in anger, they’re ready to make what was not so long ago an unthinkable breach.

Not everyone feels this way, of course. A poll for the campaign group Scotland in Union this week put the question of independence using new language. Asked whether they would vote to “Leave” or “Remain” in a second independence referendum, 59 per cent said they would opt to Remain, and 41 per cent to Leave. The wording was clever: Leave and Remain are words associated with Brexit, with Remain by far the more popular option in Scotland. Other recent polls, phrased in the familiar language of 2014, instead show a growing number of Scots favouring independence and a second referendum.

It has long seemed unlikely that the SNP will get its way and be able to hold another public vote before the next Holyrood election in 2021. The party argues that Brexit marks a material change in the UK’s situation and that it is therefore fair to put the question of leaving the UK back to the Scottish people, only five years on. The Westminster government has refused to give permission – and, to be fair, until recently it seemed likely that the Nats would only lose a second vote anyway.

Brexit is changing that calculation, as Salmond has noticed. But with the UK government unwilling to play ball, the matter has seemed largely academic. This week, however, an alternative scenario was put to me by a senior SNP figure, and it is one that bears scrutiny.

What if, my source said, Boris Johnson announced that the Nats could have their referendum next year? The condition would be that “devo max” would be on the ballot paper as an option. This is the settlement under which all powers are transferred to Holyrood other than those necessary for the maintenance of the Union in some form – defence, foreign policy and so on. My source’s feeling was that this would be a popular option among Scots disillusioned with Brexit but unsure about making a complete break. It could shoot the Nat fox and save the UK.

Interestingly, Salmond himself suggested this possibility to David Cameron ahead of 2014, possibly judging that a win for the pro-indy side was unlikely. If Cameron had been willing to go down the devo-max route, Salmond may even have agreed not to hold a referendum in the first place. But Cameron wanted a straight fight, and the idea got nowhere.

Johnson and his aides are a different prospect. They have shown repeatedly that they have little concern for political orthodoxy and received wisdom, and that they are willing to take big risks to achieve their goals. If Britain leaves the EU on 31 October, it is at least conceivable that Johnson could decide the ailing UK constitution needs reform, and that the status quo is unsustainable. A package of measures, perhaps including reform of the Lords, greater devolution to English cities and regions, and a new, generous offer to Scotland, could be a way to stop the Union falling apart – by making it looser, he could make it stronger.

It would of course be possible for the SNP to win independence in such a scenario, but the odds of them doing so would drop. Maintaining the safety net of the UK state, while taking control of most public policy areas and having greater freedom to protect their values and public services could be an attractive offer to enough Scots. My SNP contact certainly worried that his party would find this a tricky offer to counter in another referendum.

The proposal would also allow the UK government to produce a detailed white paper setting out how the new settlement would operate, ensuring that the SNP’s equivalent product would face serious intellectual competition. Johnson would also be able to argue that devo max would maintain the UK single market, which is hugely important to the Scottish economy, and avoid border controls at Berwick.

Is it likely? Who knows anything these days. But the unexpected has a habit of coming around, and this Prime Minister more than others seems to favour wrong-footing his opponents. As Salmond put it in a tweet: “On this fifth anniversary we should focus not on what might have been but on the opportunity still to come.”

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