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Don’t get complacent – Scotland’s future in the Union is hanging by a thread.

March 19th, 2017

The case for Scottish Independence is full of holes writes Keiran Pedley but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Since Nicola Sturgeon’s bombshell speech last week, where she indicated her intention to ask for a second referendum on Scottish Independence, the conventional wisdom appears to have been on something of a journey. The original reaction was one of panic. This was it. Just as we all feared, Scotland was heading for Independence as a consequence of the Brexit vote. Then Theresa May just said ‘no’. Now was not the time. There was a collective sigh of relief. ‘It’s not as bad as we feared’, the argument went, the SNP have overplayed their hand and this will all backfire on them.

The case against

I acknowledge that those arguing that Scottish Independence won’t happen have a reasonably strong case. First and foremost, Theresa May controls the timing of any vote. She will argue that a second vote will have to wait until after Brexit negotiations are finalised and there isn’t a great deal Nicola Sturgeon can do about it. In theory at least, that means that May can ensure that a future referendum takes place at the most helpful time for a ‘No’ campaign possible. Meanwhile, there is no obvious sign of a surge in support for Scottish Independence right now, nor an immediate desire for another vote on the subject.

Furthermore, it does seem that the ‘No’ side, led by Ruth Davidson, is getting its arguments in early against a ‘Yes’ vote next time.

“We have asked basic questions on things like currency, on things like a central bank, on things like whether we would even rejoin Europe as a full member, and Nicola Sturgeon seems unable to commit to that.” Ruth Davidson

The SNP case for Independence seems to rely on a newly Independent Scotland joining the EU, yet there is some doubt as to whether it would be able to. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown has warned that Scotland’s economy would be destroyed if it was a member of the EU and therefore outside the ‘UK Single Market’ when the rest of the UK is no longer a member.  These issues will be the subject of furious claim and counter-claim but it is reasonable to suggest that the case for Independence is built on shaky ground.

But don’t get complacent – so is the case for ‘No’

Yet all of that is of little comfort to me. Those getting complacent about Scotland’s future in the Union would be wise to think again. Whilst it is true that Theresa May can control the timing of any vote she cannot refuse one forever. A second referendum is coming and the context of that vote is that the UK voted to leave the EU but Scotland voted Remain. That has changed the game. So if the Brexit negotiations go anything other than swimmingly, the SNP will have a stick with which to beat the Independence drum alongside the grievance of a referendum withheld by Westminster. This is before we even touch the problematic dynamics of a future campaign itself. What will the ‘No’ campaign’s message be? Who will be in charge? What will Scottish Labour’s role be? And so on.

In truth, there are arguments for and against why Scottish Independence will ultimately happen or not. It was ever thus. That is not the same as complacently shrugging one’s shoulders and assuming it will all be fine. Just because Scottish opinion leans ‘No’ now does not mean that is fixed. We are about to enter an extremely turbulent time politically. If Theresa May does not emerge with a good Brexit deal – or indeed if she does not emerge with a deal at all – then the case for Scottish Independence will look very different in two years time than it does right now. If you are optimistic about the Union’s future, it is wise to be only cautiously so. The conventional wisdom on this issue seems to have lurched into alarmingly complacent territory and that worries me greatly.

Keiran Pedley

Keiran is the presenter of the PB/Polling Matters podcast and tweets about politics and polling at @keiranpedley

Listen to the latest podcast – on Scottish Independence and Northern Ireland’s future – below