It’s four days since the first minister announced she wanted to hold another referendum and less than 24 hours since the prime minister responded with a firm ‘No,’ or at least a firm ‘Not yet.’ Already, a few preliminary points are worth making.
First, understand that until the UK government says, ‘Yes, please, have independence now and on your terms,’ the proponents of separatism will never be satisfied. In fact, even if they got it, there would still be a post-separation narrative that blames the UK for the many problems that would inevitably assail an independent Scotland.
Which leads neatly to a second point. Don’t be fooled by the issue of EU membership, the SNP’s current casus belli. If the EU weren’t the excuse for the recent apoplectic state of the party’s leadership, it would be something else. Over thirty years ago it was the failure of another referendum on devolution that triggered outrage. For a long time it was the issue of ‘Scotland’s oil.’ Following the 2014 referendum it became the alleged failure to deliver ‘The Vow.’ If Brexit hadn’t happened, it would be an attempt to frighten a large segment of the population into believing that they faced decades of Tory austerity. If Labour were in government, it would be Corbynism … or something, in a never-ending cycle of invention.
Still, if we’re to believe recent reports, ‘invention’ may turn out to be precisely the word for what has been going on with the EU. Once upon a time the SNP were firmly anti-EU, or Common Market as it was then. Since the Brexit referendum, no party could have been clearer that Scotland’s future lay, and could only lie, in the EU. But having built an industry upon the claim, it now appears that the EU may not be so fundamental after all, with talk of continued access to the single market, the EEA or even EFTA membership all also being acceptable. The SNP seem to have woken up at last to the fact that a sizeable part of their own support (one poll claimed 36%) do not want to be members of the EU.
The same understanding of Scottish indifference or even hostility to the EU, gleaned from private Conservative focus groups or polling, is said to be part of the reason Theresa May has been adamant that there should be no separation referendum until after Brexit has happened. At the same time, reports have emerged that before the first minister’s announcement senior SNP politicians made a series of private calls to major businesses assuring them there would be no new Scottish referendum until 2021.
The public face, of course, is different. Both first minister and Alex Salmond are already into ‘sovereign will’ mode, manufacturing further outrage at Westminster’s (supposed) thwarting of the right of the Scottish people to determine their own future, ignoring the fact that that’s precisely what we did in 2014 and that the constitutional settlement they were happy to accept to get devolution clearly reserves the calling of any referendum to the UK parliament. This of course has not stopped the wilder fringes of the party, including at least one current elected councillor, raising the possibility of an advisory referendum followed by UDI (a unilateral declaration of independence) should the UK government maintain their stance. The best that can be said of that sort of nonsense is that they know not what they do.
It’s all very exciting for the media, although I do hope they don’t over-egg the pudding in their pursuit of a good story. They certainly did so when an Ipsos MORI poll for STV a week ago found, so the popular interpretation had it, that 50% of Scots wanted independence. The truth, it turned out, was more subtle. But then two days ago a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times claimed a mere 43% of people believe Scotland should be an independent country, fewer than in 2014, while 57% believe it shouldn’t. I always caution against drawing too much from a single poll, but the juxtaposition of these two, both from reputable sources, is stark. If nothing else it shows the genuine state of uncertainty we exist in.
Neither uncertainty nor excitement provide a good context for calm examination of the facts. One prediction I will stand by now is that the facts and the truth about separation and its consequences will suffer over the next months, if not years. It was the downfall of the SNP’s case for independence in 2014 (their flawed white paper) and constant vigilance will be required to subject any new case to rigorous examination. Some nationalists will never believe even a rational, evidenced and documented challenge. But there is a whole swathe of middle ground open to persuasion either way: that YouGov poll found a higher percentage of ‘Don’t knows’ on the question of independence than at any time since October 2012.
Even now, I’m not convinced that Alex Salmond’s recent cry of ‘Game on!’ is right. To extend his sporting (and gambling) analogy, there’s still all to play for. And while for some a post-truth world may be quite acceptable, many of us remember the promise of ‘once in a generation,’ unqualified by ‘… unless something big happens and we want a second bite at the cherry.’ Once upon a time on this blog I wrote ‘I hoped No Thanks! would be a short life blog not needed after 18 September .’ That was naïve. The struggle will continue until separatism withers on the vine.