An “All Under One Banner” march in Glasgow this year. Polls in 2020 have shown a consistent lead for independence for the first time. Photo: © Kay Roxby/Alamy Stock Photo

Is Scottish independence inevitable?

The separatists have the momentum and they will keep it until England shows that it cares
November 7, 2020

Is it now inevitable that Scotland will become an independent country? Not many years ago, that would have seemed like a very odd question to ask. The answer would clearly have been no; there was nothing remotely inevitable about a proposition that over decades had never garnered more than a third of popular support in Scotland.

How times have changed. Opinion polls in 2020 have consistently shown support for independence at over 50 per cent, with one recent poll showing a record high of 58 per cent. Another finds that more than 60 per cent of people in Scotland believe that a referendum held now would result in a victory for the nationalists. The concept of independence is normalised and the demographics are moving in its favour; a YouGov poll from August showed that an extraordinary 79 per cent of 18-24 year olds support independence. If nothing else, it appears that the nationalists have time on their side.

Remarkably, for a party that has been in government since 2007 and despite a record of domestic policy achievement that is thin at best, the SNP maintains a healthy lead in voting intentions for next May’s Scottish parliamentary elections. The opposition parties are struggling to make their mark. With the SNP in alliance with the independence-supporting Greens, there is likely to be a parliament with a clear majority for separation.

If that happens, demand for another referendum will redouble. The UK government can refuse the legislative permission necessary for a legal referendum and almost certainly will do so, on the grounds that the 2014 referendum was meant to be a once-in-a-generation event. How could it do anything other than attempt to stand firm? Even the most purblind partisan must know that a government led by Boris Johnson, a caricature of the English ruling class for many in Scotland, would be a disaster for the campaign to save the UK.

The chances of a high-stakes stand-off between the two governments through 2021 and beyond are therefore very high. The UK government, led by Michael Gove, is scrambling to create a “Union Unit” to challenge the nationalist narrative, but will the refusal of a second referendum simply inflame passions amid challenges to the legitimacy of the UK government’s position? How long can the UK government hold out if poll after poll shows majority support in Scotland both for a referendum and for independence?

Or will people in Scotland merely tire of the endless and wearisome debate and switch off? The crucial question for 2021 is whether the nationalist moment will pass and the pressure for independence dissipate. Will politics in Scotland run back into its old channels, with a noisy minority of the nationalist hardcore maintaining the faith, while the rest of Scotland acquiesces, albeit with a grumble, in the continuing viability of the union in a post-Brexit world?

“Brexit lays bare the blunt truth of the UK Union: it is not one of sovereign equals but one where the English voice has primacy”

It’s conceivable. There have after all been times before when it has felt like Scotland was slipping away. A surge in SNP support in the mid-1970s, helped by the discovery of North Sea oil, briefly looked as though it might destabilise the status quo and the SNP successfully exploited the disjointed politics of a minority Labour government to push for a commitment to devolution. That momentum died away with the failure to win the required majority as a proportion of the total electorate in the subsequent devolution referendum, after which devolution was effectively pushed to the margins for two decades. When I joined the Scottish Office as a young civil servant in 1989, independence seemed a remote prospect.

Things didn’t change immediately when devolution finally arrived in 1999, either. The SNP held only a handful of Westminster seats and was initially well behind Labour in Holyrood, too. It wasn’t until 2007 that the dynamic began to shift, when the SNP edged ahead of Labour by a single seat in 2007 and formed a minority administration. Even after the SNP’s unexpected and remarkable victory in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, support for independence was still the minority view. David Cameron’s hasty agreement to the holding of an independence referendum was surely buttressed by a confidence that a commanding lead in the polls for the union could not be eroded. Yet eroded it was and the collective UK political establishment panicked when a stray poll showed the “Yes” campaign in front just before polling day. But that moment too passed and even through the early shocks of Brexit, something that voters in every single Scottish council area had rejected in 2016, support for independence failed to shift much from the high water mark of the referendum itself. 

The tide might turn again. The SNP might implode and with it much support for independence. The grubby details of who said what to who and when in the run-up to the Alex Salmond trial earlier this year have stoked a near civil war within the party. The waves of controversy are lapping at Nicola Sturgeon’s feet. But so far, the electorate appears to be forgiving, perhaps because the coronavirus crisis has played to Sturgeon’s strengths. The failure by the UK government to engineer a truly engaged, cross-UK response has allowed her to own the decisions taken for Scotland. She has dominated the stage; even though the outcomes are not much different from England’s, people in Scotland are evidently far more persuaded by the way she has communicated the bad news than they are by the Prime Minister.

At some point, the effect of coronavirus will begin to fade from the political calculus. But Brexit isn’t going anywhere. Trade deal or no trade deal at the end of this year, the UK will be out, and people in Scotland will be constantly reminded that their European destiny was fixed by votes in England, not by their volition. Brexit lays bare the blunt truth of the UK Union; it is not one of sovereign equals, but one where the English-dominated UK parliament has primacy.

Just as Brexit for many people in England was about the reassertion of Britishness (or Englishness) in the face of the perceived encroachment of a European super-state, so in Scotland Brexit stirs the identity pot. One choice is no longer available—to enjoy Scottish, British and European citizenship. Some former supporters of the union now feel increasingly European, and ever-less British.

Brexit compounds the deeper shifts that have long weakened emotional attachment to the union. Some of these attachments are long gone: the mutual adherence to Protestantism, the common advantage in British global primacy and empire. Pride in shared armed endeavour dims with the receding memory of the world wars. As for other powerful symbols of Britishness, such as the NHS, it is to the Scottish Parliament that people now turn to deal with concerns about healthcare. 

The search for meaning and identity in a globalised world brings people closer to home. As with Brexit, the distant and uncomprehended becomes the “other,” the contrast to the well-known and reassurance of local community. For Brussels in England, read Westminster in Scotland. But will arguments from the heart be able to trump those of the head next time, when they couldn’t in 2014?

The economic challenges for an independent Scotland would still be many and difficult, made more fraught without the shelter of shared EU membership. A Scottish fiscal deficit that was running at over 8 per cent of GDP before Covid-19 cannot be wished away. Driven not by lower tax receipts but by higher public expenditure, achieving fiscal stability would come at the cost of swingeing austerity. There is still no obvious solution to the currency conundrum. Rejoining the EU would lead to a land border with England, Scotland’s major trading partner. 

The unpalatable facts will be run and run again. But, as Brexit shows, a union cannot subsist on economic threat alone. Numbers can lose their meaning, be ignored or wished away. To turn the deeper nationalist tide will require not just Union units, but substantive revision of the arrangements for relations between the governments of the UK so as to inspire conviction that the voice of Scotland is heard and respected in the highest counsels of the land. The all-important emotional cement must come from the rekindling of a sense of common purpose with people south of the border. Yorkshire or the northeast of England or Manchester are not so distant from Scotland in geography or outlook. Is it beyond the bounds of possibility to think that people on both sides of the border could take pride in a renewed sense of progressive solidarity?

For that to happen, England would need to show that it cares. Who will take the lead? Bashing the SNP, the stock in trade of the current Westminster government, is not enough. The mayoralties of the north of England, now finding their voice, have yet to make a mark on a debate that might end with a foreign country as their northern neighbour. Labour in opposition has no clear story about how it would seek to reconcile the people of Scotland to their place in the Union.

On such political uncertainties hinge the prospects for this union. Nothing under the sun is inevitable, including independence for Scotland. But the odds are narrowing. If Scotland continues to feel spurned, the slide will gather pace. It is not too late to renew the marriage vows, but that will require wisdom, statecraft, and a generosity of spirit that is sadly lacking in the political discourse of the south.

Philip Rycroft ran the Brexit department 2017- 19, prior to which he held senior civil service posts in London and Edinburgh, including as head of UK governance in the Cabinet Office