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Nicola Sturgeon has a problem. In the battle for independence, her Scottish National Party may own the narrative but it is not in control of its destiny.
Scotland’s first minister admitted as much in her interview with the Financial Times, saying she could not “look ahead and tell you exactly how this constitutional impasse is going to resolve itself”.
Pro-independence parties won a majority at this year’s Scottish elections but only the UK government has the right to grant a new referendum — and Boris Johnson does not want to go down in history as the man who lost the Union. While Sturgeon maintains that Brexit amounts to a material change of circumstances, he counters that it is only seven years since the last vote. She can pile on political pressure. But she cannot force the prime minister to agree with her.
Scotland’s leader has ruled out an illegal vote, not least because it might jeopardise future EU entry. So her only tactic is to foment anger. To this end the SNP is legislating beyond the remit of the Scottish parliament, goading Westminster into legal action to block bills. Last week the Supreme Court struck down two such measures and the same outcome is likely with her imminent legislation for a new referendum.
These gambits can create duress but the bottom line remains that she is trying to shame a shameless government into doing something it rightly believes is not in its interest.
Sturgeon made two forceful points on tactics in her interview. The first was that democracy must ultimately prevail: a nation consistently voting for parties demanding a new referendum cannot indefinitely be ignored.
Her second argument was that the tide is flowing only one way. “If they think it’s about playing a waiting game, I’ve probably got time on my side as well. You look at the demographics of the support for independence.”
Demographics seem to reinforce this second argument and Westminster intransigence will help. Polls show that after a period of consistent leads, support for independence has now fallen back. But among the younger voters its dominance is clear. One recent survey suggested more than 60 per cent of 16 to 34 year olds favour independence and there is a clear majority in the 35 to 54 age group. Sturgeon is thus tempting Johnson into a quick vote while the polls give him a shout.
But it cannot be a given that her patience will be rewarded. Delay may indeed help stoke separatist feeling, but issues and opinions change. The views of the young adapt as they age; issues which inflame sentiment may be overtaken by other concerns. While the current conditions would seem to place Scotland on an irreversible path towards independence, the terrain can change.
Brexit, which Scotland opposed by 62-38 per cent, reignited nationalist fire. The prime minister is a highly polarising figure for Scots. But Labour is languishing in a way which suggests Scotland could be stuck with endless Tory rule from Westminster.
Yet none of these features are necessarily permanent. Brexit anger may abate. Johnson will one day be replaced. Events may erode SNP support. Impatient activists could pressure Sturgeon into imprudent action. A UK-wide Labour revival would boost Scottish Labour. That none of these seems likely now does not mean they are impossible.
So while delay carries risks for unionists, it may be wise. Sneer at the politics of “something will turn up” if you will, but temporising often works.
Sturgeon’s first point was more important — that democratic will must ultimately prevail. The Union exists by consent and it cannot be maintained indefinitely by denying expression.
But the Conservatives can and will delay a vote until after the next general election (the SNP would not really want one earlier, given the polls). The Tories can set terms which tilt the scales their way and might even try to push back until the next Holyrood elections in 2026 in the hope the SNP falls short of forming another administration.
But to keep refusing is not just counter-productive. It would undermine both democracy and the nature of the Union. This is why the government’s line is not to say “no” but to argue, for as long as it can, that this is not the time.
Senior Tories believe that the crisis moment will come after a Conservative victory at the next general election if the SNP retains its grip on Scottish seats. Since this looks a likely outcome they have a narrow window to change minds.
There are opportunities. The SNP’s desire swiftly to rejoin the EU, while a selling point for many, raises questions over the border with England. The plan to retain the pound for some years before creating a new currency would deny Scots monetary independence, while the deficit rules for the long-term goal of joining the euro require either tax rises or spending cuts.
But, powerful though some of these arguments are, unionists know they may be less potent than the one which states that a government chosen by Scots is better placed to set the nation’s course than one chosen predominantly by England. The price of stability is that nationalism has a democratic argument. While Sturgeon admitted she did not know how the stalemate would play out, she maintains “it will resolve itself on the side of democracy, because actually, the alternative is pretty unthinkable”.
Ultimately she has to be right. If the nationalist tide does not soon ebb it will have to be confronted. Democracy can be delayed. It must not be denied.
This article was first published at https://www.ft.com/content/7f792ba6-70bb-46cb-9c8b-747a326eb495