Whatever the result in Scotland there is no reason for another independence referendum

The SNP’s case is weaker than ever

November 08, 2019
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the election campaign trail. Photo:  Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the election campaign trail. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

When I was secretary of state for Scotland in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet there was a lament one often heard from Labour and SNP politicians. Poor Scotland was doomed to live under a Tory government because of the way the English had voted.

There is a splendid irony that since Theresa May lost her majority at the last general election, poor England has been forced to continue living under a Tory government because the Scots in 2017 increased the number of Scots Tory MPs from one to 13. Without these additional seats, May would not have had a majority in the House of Commons even with the support of the Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland.

The reason why the Scots then bucked the trend elsewhere in the UK and transformed the Tories into the main opposition party to the SNP was that the Scottish electorate refused to be preoccupied by Brexit, either for or against.

That may again be highly relevant in the current general election. What is certain is that the case against breaking up the United Kingdom is considerably more powerful even than it was in 2015 or 2017.

Nicola Sturgeon had made clear in 2017, as she is making clear now, that if the SNP advanced further in the general election it would use that to demonstrate that Scots demanded a new referendum on independence, despite the SNP having been roundly defeated in the 2014 independence referendum.

Then as now a substantial majority of Scots, including a significant minority of SNP voters, did not want another referendum; the first one having divided families, communities and Scotland as a whole in an increasingly bitter way. Many felt that the SNP would continually demand further referendums on independence until, eventually, it won one. They would not be referendums but have become “neverendums”!

Although the SNP appears strong today there is no consistent evidence that the Scottish public as a whole are any more enthusiastic for another independence referendum than they were two years ago.

It is true that 62 per cent of Scots voted to Remain in the EU referendum. But, contrary to SNP hype, this does not demonstrate that there is a fundamental North-South divide in the United Kingdom. After all, the other part of the UK where 62 per cent voted to Remain was London at the southern end of the kingdom.

And of course not only did 38 per cent of Scots vote for Brexit, but this included a substantial minority of SNP supporters who see rule by Brussels as being as objectionable as rule by London and yearn for full independence like Switzerland or Norway.

In one respect the SNP is in a stronger position in this general election than it was two years ago. Ruth Davidson is no longer leader of the Scots Tories and “Leader of the Opposition” in Scotland. She has been a powerful figure in the reinvigoration of the Scottish Tories and considerably more impressive with the public than any other Scottish politician, including Sturgeon.

It seems likely that the Tories will lose at least some of their 13 seats to the SNP which will make the prime minister's target of an overall majority in parliament more difficult to achieve.

In any event two things should be unmistakeably clear. Whatever the result of the general election in Scotland there is no case for another referendum on independence in the foreseeable future. At the time of the last one Alex Salmond proclaimed that the vote would be a “Once in a generation opportunity.” That was a mere five years ago. Generations do not change that often!

What is also clear is that there is every probability that the SNP would lose again.

North Sea Oil has virtually disappeared as a crucial asset that an independent Scotland could use to balance the books. Such is the very high level of public expenditure north of the border, which is funded by the UK government, that a separate Scotland would be left with no alternative other than either awesome increases in taxation or unprecedented cuts in public expenditure.

During the last referendum the SNP argued that Scotland could “keep the pound” even if it were no longer part of the UK. That unrealistic option has now been dumped in favour of a Scottish currency which might lead to joining the euro. That will appeal to few Scots, especially as such a Scots currency would drop in value the day after independence because of the precarious state of the Scottish economy without subsidy from the South.

But there is one final consideration that would be the nail in the coffin of the SNP. Assuming that the UK, including Scotland, had left the European Union, an independent Scotland would neither be in the EU single market nor in that of the remaining United Kingdom to which a large majority of Scottish exports are sold.

If an independent Scotland was successful in joining the EU it would become even worse. There would be a hard border between Scotland and England as that border would have become the external border between the EU and the UK, as is the border between Ireland and Ulster.

So what would be required? The need for an English Backstop would dominate the diplomatic and economic exchanges for years thereafter.

You first heard it here.

Malcolm Rifkind was Secretary of State for Scotland from 1986-90