There will be no second referendum on Scottish independence this year. This is certain. And it is not because Boris Johnson has today told Nicola Sturgeon that, as expected, he is not minded to pass control of the UK constitution from Westminster to Holyrood – but because the people of Scotland are not yet demanding a referendum within Sturgeon’s preferred timetable. Indeed, they are not demanding a referendum at all.
Absent evidence of an overwhelming enthusiasm for reopening the national question – evidence not yet furnished by any respectable opinion poll – the UK government’s position will hold. For the time being, it is a position supported by the majority – a narrow majority, but a majority nonetheless – of Scottish voters.
This, it should be obvious, is no kind of long-term answer to the provisionality with which the Union is presently maintained. But for the time being, and being the stoutest rope available, it will do for lack of anything better. It is a bet, or perhaps more accurately a hope, that nationalism is a storm which will one day pass after which life can return to something approaching normality.
I suspect this is a vain hope, not least because this is an age of nationalisms and this, indeed, is something close to a settled normality. Moreover, every year the Scottish electorate becomes, on balance, a little more friendly to the SNP. That is to say, voters who are more likely to favour Union are replaced on the electoral roll by voters with greater sympathy for independence. That is a crude metric, to be sure, but also a real one.
But, right now, the truth is also that Scotland remains a house divided. Roughly half the country says it favours independence and roughly half does not. There is a majority in the Scottish parliament for independence but no such majority in the country. In such circumstances, everyone has a precious ‘mandate’ for their constitutional preferences and the cost of me accepting yours is that you accept mine. This is contested territory and neither side has cornered the market in Scottish opinion.
From which it follows that victory in the Scottish portion of a UK general election does not necessarily bring with it permission for a second independence referendum. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged this on 13 December when, reacting to the election result, she conceded that, ‘I don’t pretend that every single person who voted SNP yesterday will necessarily support independence’; from which it also follows that not every single person who voted SNP did so as a means of demanding a second referendum either.
Nationalists harrumph about the suppression of Scottish ‘democracy’ inherent in the UK government’s position. Many Scots will be sympathetic to this, though it bears repeating that the future integrity of the United Kingdom is something that, though primarily of concern to Scottish voters, is not their exclusive preserve. The rest of the country has an interest in it too. Which is one reason why the constitution is, and should remain, a reserved matter.
None of which means Scottish opinion can simply be ignored or considered of no account. If, for instance, sixty per cent – or more! – of the Scottish electorate made it clear they desired a fresh referendum it would be difficult, and I think morally dubious, for the UK government to ignore that demand. Equally, a majority for the SNP (and the Greens) in next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections would change matters all over again. In those circumstances, whatever the Tories say now, I believe it would be difficult to avoid reopening the national question.
But a referendum cannot be held just because the SNP desire one. As always, a simple question suffices to demonstrate the point: would annual referendums be acceptable until the SNP get the answer they crave? If the answer is no – and it is – then the principle is established and we are left only to haggle over the price. Or, in this instance, the acceptable period between referendums. 2014 was a referendum largely without fuss or, in this respect, controversy because even many of those who had no intention of voting Yes conceded it was appropriate to ask the question. That consent is notably absent at present.
It suits Sturgeon to focus on the national question since doing so gives her ministry something to talk about which, given the litany of miserable or otherwise concerning news on health and education evident in recent months, is no trivial thing. And, as ever, she believes she is playing with house money: she would win a referendum (or so she must believe) but the refusal to grant a referendum makes eventual victory (when that line proves indefensible) all the more likely. Heads she wins; tails Unionism loses.
And perhaps she is right. Perhaps the UK government’s disinclination to permit another referendum now will outrage some of those Scots who were hitherto unpersuaded on the referendum question. Being thrawn buggers, the Scottish people will now demand something they did not really want simply because they have been told they cannot have it.
If she is right, however, there is little sign of that being the case yet. Just as Unionism speaks to only half the country, so does nationalism and it might behove partisans on all sides to reflect upon that. No one ‘speaks for Scotland’ because no consensus on this question is yet available, far less apparent.
To which it might be added that the argument for a referendum before such time as the future relationship between the UK and the EU is settled is both ridiculous and fundamentally deceitful. For it invites Scottish voters to make a blind choice that would be even more hazardous and fraught with uncertainty than was the case in 2014. Since the UK-EU relationship will plainly inform both the Edinburgh-London and Edinburgh-Brussels relationships in the event of independence it is not unreasonable to ask that the matter be parked until such time as these matters may more usefully be ascertained. Only then can Scottish voters make a more informed choice.
Patience, then, for the people will lead the politicians on this matter but, for now, the people have not made up their minds. When, or if, they do a new reality will be born. In the meantime, Unionism can hold the line, appreciating that if next spring might well prove a difficult season for it, this spring is liable to prove more awkward for nationalism than is sometimes appreciated.
So, yes, this is a constitutional impasse but it is not, at least not yet, a constitutional crisis.