It may seem a strange question to ask in the wake of a referendum in which 45% of those voting wanted out of the UK, and a general election in which the SNP all but swept the board of Westminster seats, although nationalists triumphant at those results might ponder the fact that in neither test of opinion did Yes/SNP get more than about 37% of the adult population to turn out and vote for separation/Scotland’s main separatist party.
My reflection on the subject was, curiously you might think, prompted by a TV programme, last night’s Question Time from Dundee. Probably to the frustration of viewers elsewhere in the UK, the focus of the audience’s questions and the panel’s responses was almost entirely on Scotland. The panel, rather larger than usual I guess because of the forthcoming Holyrood election, included representatives of the five parties in the Scottish parliament (therefore two pro indy and three anti) and a journalist/commentator. The make-up of the panel and the presence in the audience of allegedly ‘English’ accents seems to have wound up some nationalists online, a phenomenon only too common in Scotland these days as protagonists interpret balance as bias.
It seems eminently acceptable to me that such a panel should include all the parties represented in parliament, as the audience should also be representative. My first, wrong, instinct was that the audience for a current affairs discussion in ‘Yes City,’ as Dundee was dubbed during the referendum, would be very pro-nationalist. In fact, although it had its usual smattering of eccentrics (on both sides and none) it was actually a very restrained and fair crowd. Perhaps a leavening of members from across the water from North East Fife (tending to Lib Dem, at least hitherto) and rural Angus (tending to Conservative, at least hitherto) helped, not to mention that part of Dundee that is still resolutely Labour.
Anyhow, my purpose is not to attempt a blow by blow account of the debate but merely to point out that although it was robust it was, as these things go, actually very reasonable and reasoned. Unlike, in fact, most TV debates during the referendum.
(Incidentally, if you are of the nationalist tendency and detected imbalance in the programme just remember that balance is not a question of attendance to the minutiae of individual questions and answers but should be considered on a broader basis. I refer you, for example, to last Monday’s Start the Week on BBC Radio 4, a ‘Whither Scotland?’ style discussion that included, from my point of view, a number of contentious opinions on ‘national reawakening’ from a panel of four, three of whom were supporters of independence).
Question Time had me wondering whether what I saw as a reasoned and balanced discussion was a straw in the wind for that broader question of whether the Scottish independence dream is dead and buried.
Of course the SNP is likely to do well in May’s Holyrood election. But the SNP doing well in an election does not necessarily equate to a demand for independence by the majority of the population. And, unless you assume some unconstitutional action, independence will only come about through another referendum. That means the governing party have to be convinced they will win it by a decisive majority (60% has been spoken of), Holyrood has to endorse it and Westminster approve it. I cannot see any of that happening for a long time.
There is of course another referendum looming, as if you didn’t know, the EU in/out vote. Although there has been much brave talk of a split Scotland/rest of UK vote being a trigger for a second Scottish independence referendum it seems to me relatively unlikely. First, we’re not voting as separate nations, it’s a UK-wide count. Second, different outcomes are by no means certain. Both Scotland/rUK could vote the same way (most likely, I would guess, to stay in although by different margins). But third, even if the outcome is different, we’re back to those issues I raise above about a second independence referendum and some major dilemmas for the SNP. By far the greater part of Scotland’s external trade is with the UK. A prospectus for independence and EU membership (the Euro, anyone?) would still be needed. And a referendum would still have to be won.
That leads me naturally to Bill Clinton’s famous answer to all the big questions – ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ The Scottish economy doesn’t look that good, certainly not as good as it was painted by the SNP in Scotland’s Future. One word summarises much of the problem – oil. It’s just as well we voted to stay in the UK and it’s just as well – to give credit where it’s due – that the Scottish government struck a good deal on funding from Westminster in the post-referendum devolution negotiations. Meantime, their own new GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) estimates show the extent to which there would be a fiscal ‘black hole’ without that support from the UK. If you haven’t, I urge you to read blogger Kevin Hague’s analysis of the numbers and his conclusion that independence ‘would lead to economic hardship far beyond anything currently being contemplated while we remain in the UK.’ If you doubt that (if you’re a nationalist you will) try former Alex Salmond adviser Alex Bell’s latest column in The Courier – ‘an economic case which never stood up to scrutiny … the bully boys deaf to criticism and blind to self-image.’ Ouch.
If you’ve got this far you may remember my opening question – is the Scottish independence dream dead and buried? Of course it isn’t. There will always be dreamers, the ‘as long as but a hundred of us remain alive …’ crowd. Dreams can be pleasant enough, exciting even while they last. But in the cold light of day, and in this case harsh economic reality, they’re more likely to make you wake in a cold sweat grateful that you’ve had a narrow escape. Maybe last night’s Question Time was a straw in the wind that heralds more reasonable and reasoned times. I hope so.