Whisper it, but the dream of a separate Scotland could be fading for Scottish nationalists. A new poll shows that only one-third of Scots want a referendum on independence to take place within the next two years. And while only a slim majority (51 per cent) support holding Britain together, the poll also found that only one-third of Scots believe it would be wrong for the UK Supreme Court to decide whether a referendum can take place.
Constitutional powers being decided at the UK level is, it turns out, absolutely fine with most Scots. That matters, because the Supreme Court could be the crucial institution that decides whether a poll can take place (that is, if law officers at Holyrood even let it get that far).
Perhaps the Supreme Court’s much publicised 2019 proceedings, which led to a ruling that Boris Johnson acted unlawfully when he advised the Queen to suspend parliament, has anointed it with special reverence in people’s hearts. We can recall Nicola Sturgeon tweeting admiringly that she and her colleagues were gathered at Bute House to watch Lady Hale deliver the court’s judgement. What an irony it would be if she was unwittingly sowing the seeds of trust that are now neutralising the argument there is a ‘clear democratic mandate’ for a constitutional re-match.
Regardless, the latest poll numbers confirm a trend: the idea of independence in the abstract might appeal to a near majority, but crystalise the thought of another referendum in people’s minds and all but the most fervent run a mile. The latest polling also informs us that most voters are certain about how they would vote in a future referendum, with those who want to keep Scotland in the UK the most set in their ways.
Conclusion? The campaign for secession is thoroughly stuck. It is going nowhere, and even if support for separation did go up, it seems the thought of a return to the trench warfare of 2014 puts the majority of Scots off. Yet Sturgeon’s official position remains stubbornly fixed: never mind the will of the people or legal reality, Scotland will have another referendum before the end of 2023 whether it likes it or not.
This was reinforced again this week by Sturgeon, following a backlash from independence supporters in response to Ian Blackford, the party’s Westminster leader, hinting at a referendum delay. Blackford stated the SNP must be ‘respectful of the responsibilities’ it has in light of the Ukraine crisis. He said a referendum should ‘take place in a timely manner’ but that the short-term focus must be responding to Russia’s invasion.
The advance and retreat cycle is becoming farcical and Sturgeon’s position increasingly ludicrous. There will not be a second plebiscite next year. The legal and political restraints are too great. But even if they weren’t, there is one other major impediment to pushing ahead: the economic case for secession has become so withered as to be effectively dead.
Convincing people in an advanced economy to become the first to experiment with being cut off from their central bank, welfare state, expansive tax base, and much of the infrastructure of modern state administration was always a difficult pitch. Now it is a near impossible one.
In the build up to the 2014 referendum the SNP did at least have some facts on their side. Then, thanks to North Sea oil and gas Scotland’s notional deficit was lower than that of the whole UK. Today, the opposite is true.
In 2014 there wasn’t much talk of a hard border with England because of the UK’s place in the EU. Today, secession almost certainly means a hard border with Scotland’s biggest trading partner and the economic damage of sudden trade frictions on that border. And then there’s the currency question. It played havoc with the SNP’s positioning in 2014. It’s still doing so today.
There is a tendency in nationalist ranks to see these problems as solvable. If we all just knuckle down and think about it really hard then, surely, a solution will be found. But these are, for the most part, intractable issues. They cannot be solved, and trying harder to come up with the solution simply leads to more confusion.
The reality is that secession means a poorer Scotland. It means increased poverty and the social challenges that come with it. It means harsher times and harder lives, at least in the medium term.
An inability to confront this obvious truth makes the SNP and their outriders, the Scottish Greens, sound increasingly detached from the real world when they do try to make economic arguments around separation. The recent state pensions imbroglio is a good example.
So what now for the separatist case? Scottish civil servants have been tasked with producing a new white paper that will supposedly reconstruct the economic basis for Scexit. But it is difficult to see how such a paper can make secession appealing, unless it goes down the route of replacing existing facts on things like official projections for Scotland’s deficit with ‘alternative facts’. The most likely outcome is a tepid document that gives diehard supporters a sense of progress for a few weeks while they continue to delude themselves Sturgeon will deliver a new state.
What it cannot do, ultimately, is conceal the truth: that the economic case for secession has been snuffed out — suffocated under the weight of its own beguiling contortions.
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