Unionists must rethink if they want to break the Scottish stalemate

Those who believe Scotland’s future lies with the UK should abandon the strong-arm tactics and seek to actually persuade people

January 14, 2022
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon needs support for independence to hit a consistent 60 per cent before she can be confident of winning a referendum. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon needs support for independence to hit a consistent 60 per cent before she can be confident of winning a referendum. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, has begun the new year with a pledge to do “all in her power” to ensure that there is a referendum on Scottish independence before the end of 2023. So far, so same old. Everyone knows that there will no referendum this side of the next Westminster election. Even Sturgeon nods to that by stepping back from her previous claim that there “will be” a referendum. It won’t happen, because the Westminster government will not sanction a legal referendum and the Scottish government won’t hold an illegal one.

So the stand-off between the two governments persists. Neither has been able to throw the other; opinion polls are jammed at around the 50-50 mark. This is stalemate and one that may persist. But that does not mean this debate is over. A stalemate is a sort of equilibrium, but it is not necessarily a stable one.

That we are in this situation is as much a cause for nationalist as for unionist angst. In spite of everything—Brexit, Covid, the fumbled handling of Scottish affairs by the Johnson-led government—the polls have not risen to the levels at which the SNP can be comfortable that the independence proposition is near to being the settled will of the people. Fifty-fifty is not a sufficiently compelling moral case to force another referendum; nor would it be a secure base on which to go into such a referendum.

What might change that? The sceptic might want answers to some of the difficult questions: currency options for an independent Scotland, a plan to deal with a mighty deficit, a way out of the Brexit border conundrum (what will be the choice between the UK internal market and the EU single market, since simultaneous, barrier-free access to both will not be on offer?). Perhaps also a more convincing demonstration of the possibilities of independence, through the deployment of existing powers now to transform outcomes for Scottish people in terms of economic growth, health and education. But it is more likely that such scepticism will be overtaken by political exigencies; the prospect of another Conservative government pursuing an agenda antithetical to Scotland’s political conception of itself, perhaps combined with a UK economic downturn, generating further and deeper frustration with the status quo. Might that be enough to get the polls in favour of independence up towards the totemic 60 per cent mark?

Meanwhile, what of the unionist side of the debate? The attention paid in the south to the Scottish question has always been intermittent. When the SNP seems to be on the back foot and flagging, panic subsides and Scotland drifts from view. As has happened before, the pattern of behaviour in Westminster reverts to, broadly, indifference or, as we have seen with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s belittling of the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, sheer incomprehension.

Indifference does not persuade. A distracted south has found no narrative to revive the case for Britishness. There is a half-hearted attempt through so-called muscular unionism to oblige Scots to accept that they simply have no other choice but to stay within the UK, but that sort of assimilationist agenda is probably about 300 years too late. Moreover, time, it appears, is on the side of the nationalists. Each time the nationalist flood tide has come in, it has got higher up the seawall. Total vote share for independence-supporting parties continues to nudge upwards at each Scottish parliamentary election. Without some shift in strategy from the south, the next time it might top the sea defences.

Attitudes revealed in polling at the time of the 2014 referendum showed that for many of those who voted No to independence, the relationship with the rest of the UK was already transactional; if more had been persuaded that they would have been only £500 better off, the result might have been very different. The threat of economic dislocation is still potent, but prone to being overwhelmed if disillusion with the prospects for the Union spreads.

If the relationship is already transactional, perhaps the best hope for the Union is to improve the terms of the transaction. That, in essence, is the story of devolution. An increasingly vocal cadre close to the UK government now argue that this is a fool’s errand; devolution has just opened the door wider to independence. There is something in that. Devolution has demonstrated the reality of Scotland as a political community which has whetted the appetite of some for more thorough-going change. But it also responded to the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland; those who fear the consequences of devolution have no answer to the question: if not devolution, then what? The notion that Scotland in the late 1990s would somehow have accepted the continuation of the status quo is just for the birds.

So the south has a choice. It can try to force Scots to stay in the Union by force majeure. Some claim Brexit as a weapon in that campaign, since Brexit has had the effect of making the trading relationships of an independent Scotland hugely more complicated. But force majeure, as well as being undemocratic, will sow the seeds of its own destruction.

Alternatively, the south can accept the reality of the Union as it now is and strive to improve the relationship between its constituent parts. There are many stopping-off points between devolution as we know it and complete autonomy for an independent Scotland. Independence, as Brexiteers are discovering, is a fungible concept in an interconnected world.

Changes recently announced to improve the machinery that manages relations between the governments of the UK is a modest step in that direction. It remains to be seen whether the UK government will live the spirit of those changes. There is a wider deal to be done, as part of a reform of governance across the UK, including in and of England. That deal would re-assert the Union as one of equality of esteem, where the voice of each part of the Union is heard with respect and can be seen to influence outcomes at all levels. If the south wants to break the stalemate in its favour, that’s the creative territory it will have to enter.