Now it gets messy. Lord Ashcroft’s poll putting support for Scottish independence at 52-48 (the cursed percentages) is the first to register a majority for separation since March 2017. It is, of course, a single poll; we have been here before. But recent polls have shown a gradual uptick in support for secession and if this survey is followed by others we will have a trend on our hands. In that case, though Boris Johnson will take a lot of the flak, it is more likely to be the Brexit he embodies than his newborn premiership that shifted the dial. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the EU and now the talk is of no deal and WTO terms and stocking up on canned goods and antibiotics.
Hence, Lord Ashcroft finds more Scots in favour of than against a second independence referendum within the next two years. He also records one in five 2014 No voters and 40 per cent of Labour voters backing a split. Six in ten Remain voters want Scotland to exit the United Kingdom. 62 per cent say Brexit makes Scottish statehood more likely, 52 per cent reckon it strengthens the case for that outcome and 46 per cent would regard crashing out of the EU without a deal as ‘disastrous for Scotland’.
If Scottish public opinion has shifted from remaining to leaving the UK, the government will have to tool up for another fight to save the Union. (English nationalists, who have always, if unwittingly, been for Anglexit rather than Brexit, may profess themselves relaxed at the prospect of the Jocks pissing off but they will be less equanimous about some of the consequences.) Those who defeated the Scottish nationalists in the independence referendum would be justified in feeling their hard-won victory had been thrown away by people who never made it to the trenches in 2014.
The prospect of another independence referendum would cast a pall over Boris Johnson’s government. He could be the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, not least if a Scottish breakaway gave impetus to a border poll in Northern Ireland. But if the PM is feeling a slight queasiness over this poll, it will be nothing compared to the herds of elephants thundering through Nicola Sturgeon’s belly. The SNP’s line is that it has a mandate for a fresh plebiscite based on the 2016 Scottish Parliament election.
Until now, Sturgeon has been able to balance her members’ zeal for a re-run with polling suggesting the result would be much the same as last time. If we are embarked on a stretch of pro-independence polls, the SNP leader has nothing left to keep her restive members at bay. I was standing in the small crowd that booed the Prime Minister as he met Sturgeon in Edinburgh. Not all of them were booing and not all were directing their voices at him. ‘Use the mandate’ was hollered more than once at the woman greeting him on the doorstep.
This is where the messiness comes in. The only way Sturgeon can legally exercise her alleged mandate is by requesting a Section 30 order from the sovereign parliament — Westminster. As the Commons is currently configured, that is unlikely to be forthcoming. Here Sturgeon’s options narrow. She could hold a wildcat vote like the Catalans tried two years ago, though it would almost certainly be boycotted by the non-nationalist parties, as would an indicative referendum (e.g. ‘Should Scotland have the right to a second referendum on independence?’).
Her best bet would be to bank the grievance and make a do-over referendum the central issue of 2021’s Holyrood elections. Even then, an outright majority is no guarantee that Westminster will bend the knee and give her what she wants. There are solid grounds for arguing that a devolved election can never produce a mandate for a reserved policy. This would reduce Sturgeon to suing her way to the ballot box or hoping she is in a position to extract a second referendum from a minority Corbyn government at some point in the near future.
All this assumes the SNP would win a second plebiscite. Certainly, the circumstances could not be more favourable. However, if the Unionists eked out another victory, it wouldn’t just be the end of Sturgeon’s political career. The Nationalists have held the UK hostage since 2011, when they won their first Holyrood majority and announced plans for a secession vote. A decade on death row is enough for any nation and a second stay of execution would prompt Unionists on either side of the Tweed to consider how best to remove the constant threat of separatism. One solution might be a codified constitution modelled on the ‘indissoluble unity’ of the Spanish governing system. Another would be a new Scotland Act to more rigidly define — and meaningfully limit — the powers of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish ministers.
Of course, if the English nationalist contingent continues to gain within the Tory party, the SNP could one day find themselves in the position of the dog that caught the car. If not Boris Johnson, perhaps someone yet more unthinkable beyond him, might give them their second referendum and might not fight them all that hard when it comes to it. Not having to shovel cash into the £10bn black hole in Scotland’s public finances would leave an English government with a tidy sum to spend on tax cuts or the NHS. If the Scots hand back their subsidies in a fit of pique, English taxpayers will be only too happy to receive them. It is not, in the main, the English who will suffer for Scotland’s decision to absent itself from the UK single market. Best of British to you, lads. Politically, though, it would be humiliating. The English would have taken back control from Europe only for the Scots to take it back from them.
That’s more than enough on one solitary poll, but this is the frustrating power of nationalism to distract and beguile. Scotland has the highest drug fatality rates in Europe, Edinburgh’s new sick children’s hospital can’t open because of safety concerns, and NHS Scotland last met its urgent cancer referral target in December 2012. These are things that matter but nationalism distorts priorities into background noise as it elevates symbols and sentiment above the material facts of life. Dissenters may cry ‘misdirection’ but the voters know they are being deceived and, on some level, they want it. Its political rivals put mere bread on the table but nationalism gives the people something to believe in.
The interests of Britain’s two separatist movements may be aligning more closely and openly than ever before. English and Scottish nationalism are not enemies, or even estranged siblings. They are allies.