THESE are strange days. This lacklustre Holyrood election campaign has come alive in the last week over something that almost certainly isn’t going to happen: a repeat referendum on Scottish independence.
It dominated the BBC leaders’ debate on Sunday; it’s all over the front pages; and John Humphrys on the Today programme yesterday spent a fruitless five minutes barracking Nicola Sturgeon about her plans to “impose” another referendum.
I don’t know how often the First Minister has to say that there isn’t going to be another one any time soon before people start hearing her. Only RISE and Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity are committed to a repeat referendum in the next five years. Everyone has been calling on the SNP to “move on” and it has; it’s the opposition parties that can’t seem to get over it.
I suppose Labour and the Tories believe that raising a referendum warning might inject some life into their wilting campaigns. But rather like the UK Labour Party’s row over anti-Semitism, the referendum row is almost entirely synthetic. The First Minister has no intention of calling another independence referendum in the next five years. Why would the SNP want to call a ballot it would almost certainly lose?
Labour and the Tories say that the SNP must “end the uncertainty…heal the wound…let Scotland be at peace with itself” and stop talking about independence. But the leader of the Scottish National Party can’t stop talking independence without undermining the very raison d’etre of her party. And why should she, when the SNP has just won the biggest electoral landslide in history? You’d be as well calling on the Unionist parties to stop talking about the virtues of the UK.
It is true that Ms Sturgeon has said that a Brexit vote in the June referendum could provide the “material change in circumstances” that could trigger a referendum in Scottish independence, but she has been very careful to clarify this by saying it would only happen if a “clear and sustained” majority demand another referendum. A referendum is not “one opinion poll away” .
The SNP leadership let it be known during its Aberdeen mega-conference last autumn that unless or until Scottish voters are registering more than 60 per cent for Yes you can forget about another referendum. Nicola Sturgeon has qualified that by talking about support needing to be “significantly above 50 per cent”. But it would need to be at the top end and right now it is still significantly below.
The noise about an early referendum is good for Ms Sturgeon in one sense: it diverts attention from the realisation that the referendum route to independence may no longer be the most promising one. Plebiscites tend, after all, to favour the establishment. When you control the means of communication you have a head start in any information war. Referendums also tends to validate the status quo because of fear of the unknown.
You can see this in the EU referendum, where the self-same Project Fear that defeated independence only 18 months ago has been rolled out to oppose Brexit. It has almost been a comic parody. Day by day the press has been filled with stories about currency instability, firms leaving, black holes in the financial accounts. Even President Obama has stepped in, as he did before the independence referendum.
Becoming a new country, like leaving the EU, involves a leap of faith and modern electorates don’t like taking chances. Why should they? Most of the middle classes in Scotland are comfortably off and don’t want to lose their security and privileges. Setting up a new independent nation is not as difficult as the Project Fear propagandists claim, but it would inevitably involve disruption, uncertainty and difficult choices.
If the UK and the Bank of England are determined to wreck and independent Scottish economy it is clearly in their power to do so. Winning the support of 1.6 million Scots for independence in 2014 was a remarkable achievement involving a unique set of circumstances and a rare coalition of forces. But it lost. And there’s no reason to believe it would succeed a second time.
The best option for the SNP is to carrying on with the gradualist approach that has been so successful in changing Scotland’s political culture. There may of course be a formal recognition of Scotland’s independence in a referendum some way down the line. But right now, there’s there is no point in upsetting the voters. An early referendum would only interrupt the SNP’s real project: independence by stealth.
From Herald 3/5/16