There has been, and continues to be in some quarters, much speculation about what might be a trigger for a second Scottish separation referendum. The theory, if the idea can be graced with the word, is that there could be a single event so repugnant to the people of Scotland and so out of kilter with sentiment in the rest of the United Kingdom, that there would be an irresistible demand for another test of the independence question.
To give a flavour of what might be involved, here are the events I have seen suggested recently and seriously as triggers for another referendum:
- a vote across the UK to leave the EU in the separate referendum to be held in 2017
- an invasion by British forces of Syria (I assume the protagonists of this option would be realistic enough to concede that this could only be on the coat tails of a wider international effort)
- a failure to deliver the ‘Vow’
- welfare cuts, ranging from the enactment of current proposals to cut benefits further to continued and sustained austerity
- the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent
- the ‘Little Englander’ mentality of our neighbours
- if Labour under Corbyn cannot show quickly that it has a credible chance of winning the next UK election – because many will conclude that independence is the only alternative to a Conservative government (this one in a tweet from Nicola Sturgeon on 12 September)
- an SNP landslide in the 2016 Holyrood election
- a UK economic crisis
- the oil price recovers and maybe even soars to new levels
- the enactment by the UK parliament of ‘English votes for English laws’
- a domino effect if Catalonia, the Basque country or maybe even Flanders succeed in breaking away from Spain or Belgium respectively.
It turned out that many people could not take the idea of a second referendum trigger seriously and alternative suggestions started to appear on social media. My thanks to STV for compiling a list of the most compelling, including:
- broadcasters fail to turn the weather map the right way up
- the currency question is still unresolved, or more accurately ‘Somebody’s somebody’s auntie’s mate hears from somebody that their son couldn’t spend a Scottish £1 note in England’
- David Cameron pronouncing scone as scone when it should be pronounced scone
- Dundee cake fails to get protected status
- Scottish Terrier loses to Old English Sheepdog at Crufts
- a Scottish contestant is defeated in the final of the Great British Bake Off
- Scots worry about English companies ramping up their own tartan and/or whisky production
- English people continue to mock Scottish people
- George Galloway. Any instance of George Galloway, and
- a child. Any instance of a child being born in Scotland.
You’ll get the point. Some think the idea of a second referendum trigger is risible.
Nicola Sturgeon has claimed that the only trigger for a referendum will be if the ‘people’ decide there should be one although, with the smack of firm leadership that popularity confers, she has also said ‘I will decide’ (this may be the point, incidentally, to insert a reminder that any legal referendum can only be held with the agreement of the UK government).
Ex-first minister Alex Salmond has wavered on this one, earlier this summer punting the idea that the Vow, the EU or ‘austerity max’ could all be triggers. More recently he seems to have decided that there could only be one ‘special case’ that would trigger a referendum – a UK vote to exit the EU. This assumes Scotland might vote differently than the rest of the UK (code for England of course). I’m not sure that would happen anyhow. Nationalists always play up the idea that Scotland is radically different from England and the facts don’t always support the claim.
Interestingly, Kevin Pringle, Salmond’s ex-special advisor and the SNP’s former director of strategic communications, has debunked the idea of the EU as a referendum trigger. He points out the many practical challenges of Scotland seeking to extricate itself from one union while remaining in another when the first is trying to extricate itself from the second … I think you’ll see what I mean. Anyhow, his argument makes him look a more thoughtful strategist than his ex-boss (his case is summarised on the Telegraph web site. The full text is behind a Sunday Times paywall I choose not to pay to breach).
All that seems to leave the idea of a second independence referendum where it probably belonged in the first place – as a footnote in the dustbin of history.
What is indisputably a pragmatic fact (surely?) is that the SNP will not seek to hold another referendum unless they can be sure of winning it. The party faithful, at least the high heid yins minus Salmond, have finally realised that they have not been alone in the separation room, but there’s been a darned great elephant occupying the space too. Reality seems to have sunk in at their recent conference, with the first minister talking of convincing people about independence through good government. That of course equates their party with the nation, but ’twas ever thus.
A media consensus, supported by anonymous SNP sources, seems to be emerging that only a prolonged majority in opinion polls for ‘Yes’ would convince the first minister to go for another referendum. The figure of 60% sustained for at least a year is spoken of as the benchmark (see for example the BBC).
That obviously makes sense from an SNP point of view. But on the basis that ‘good government’ might increase the SNP’s popularity even further one key task for its unionist opponents must be to ensure that its many shortcomings and failings continue to be highlighted. It shouldn’t be too difficult (see the partial list here for example).
Even beyond all that there is the, to me, curious phenomenon that some people seem happy to vote SNP to ensure Scotland’s voice is heard in the UK although they would not vote for independence.
As Comrade Sheridan might say, albeit to a very different end, there is hope yet.