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Scotland: Will it be a nation once again?

Image by Emphyrio from Pixabay

Scotland threw a large spanner in the works of England’s normally reliable rugby chariot at an empty Twickenham last Saturday. Was it just a bad day on a sports field or a more portentous omen?

Leo Tolstoy wrote my favourite short story. In English translation, I have seen it appear under two different titles: “What shall it profit a man?” and “How much land does a man need?”

It kicks off with a conversation comparing and contrasting town and country life. A merchant’s wife living in the city is visiting her sister, the spouse of a country peasant. Each thinks they enjoy the better deal and that the other has drawn a particularly short straw. Eventually, the peasant intervenes to side with his wife. The peasant life is okay, he says, but for one drawback.

The only trouble is so little land. For myself, if I had only as much land as I want, I should not be afraid of anyone, not even of the Devil himself!

The women’s conversation moves on and the husband resumes his silence. But the Devil had heard the husband’s boast.

All right”, thought he, “You and I shall fight it out together.”

And fight it out they do — to a finish from which there could be only one winner. So we learn, in the end, six feet by two is all the land we need.

I thought of this story when I read a tweet by Iain Martin, columnist with The Times late in January about the ponderous pace of vaccination in the EU.

UK public opinion is a priority for the UK govt though, how self-govt works. EU public opinion isn’t a priority for the EU, doesn’t need to be. Why we left. Anyway, well done the EU Commission on its vaccine procurement programme.

In the background, I could hear the Devil musing to himself: “All right, let us walk awhile together along this road of public opinion and self-government and see if you like where it takes us.”

The week before the referendum of 18 September 2014, the editorial in The Economist betrayed alarm at the apparently emerging possibility that a majority of Scots might vote for independence.

The first peg of the independence case at which the editorial directed fire was economics:

At the heart of the nationalist campaign is the claim that Scotland would be a more prosperous and more equal country if it went solo.

The Economist’s view? “Scotland would not, in fact, be richer alone.” Oil revenues were high then but would not always be and, anyway, the oil was gradually running out. Foreign investors and big business would most likely divert their focus and presence to south of the border.

Then there was the cloud, then no bigger than a man’s hand, of a future UK-wide referendum leading to the country’s departure from the EU. The periodical’s shot at this fox now looks decidedly lame.

In going independent Scotland would swap the possibility of an EU exit for a certain future as a small, vulnerable country.

In the end, the editorial suggested that the referendum would more likely turn on identity and power rather than money. It recognised the potency of the former:

The idea that Scots can shape their own destiny, both at the referendum and afterwards is exhilarating.”

But, Scotland already controlled many of its own affairs. And, the editorial climaxed (excuse my language) with this ringing declaration.

For all its tensions and rivalries, and sometimes because of them, the history of the union shows that the Scots, Welsh, English and Northern Irish are stronger, more tolerant and more imaginative together than they would be apart.

The referendum was defeated by 55.3% to 44.7% on a turnout of 84.6% of registered voters.

The political landscape has changed a great deal in the intervening six years.

In spite of, or because of, the referendum result 8 months earlier, the SNP won 50% of the vote and 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in the UK general election of May 2015. This was the high watermark of SNP popular support. But it has consistently outperformed all other parties at subsequent elections. At the last Scottish Parliament elections in 2016, it won 47% of the vote. In the UK general election of December 2019, it won 45%.

Almost two years after Scotland’s referendum, the “Leave” side won the UK’s Brexit referendum with 51.9% of the vote on a turnout of 72.2%. “Remain” won 62% of the vote in Scotland.

In January 2020, the UK left the EU and, last December, concluded an agreement encapsulating its post-Brexit relationship with the EU which could be fairly described only as a hard Brexit, if not the hardest possible.

Opinion polls for next May’s Scottish Parliament elections project SNP support at 50–55% of the vote. Since June last year, opinion polls on a possible second independence referendum have consistently projected a majority in favour of independence.

The SNP recently confirmed its intention to pursue a referendum if it wins a majority in the May elections.

There are all kinds of open questions about what Scottish independence would look like. For example, independence would open up a possible but not certain path to restoring EU membership or at least a closer relationship with the EU. But that boost to the independence cause is somewhat offset by the likelihood in that event of a harder “break” with the rest of Britain, given the latter’s hard Brexit.

In its edition of 23 January this year, The Economist assessed the current prospects for independence. The headline reflects the general complacency of the piece. “Most Scots want independence, but they lack the means to get it”. The article did concede one change in the dynamics compared to 2014. Independence is seen less now as a shortcut to economic bonanza:

Scots think independence will leave them poorer, but like Brexit the project is a triumph of constitutional ideals over economic interest.


… a mechanism to break up the UK lies frustratingly beyond reach… The reason is Britain’s constitutional law. There is no British equivalent of the EU’s Article 50, the secession clause any state can invoke. Rather, the Scotland Act, which created the Scottish Parliament, stipulates that the constitution is Westminster’s domain.

And the likelihood of Westminster granting permission for a referendum is precisely zero. The article concludes in the withering, witty, world-weariness characteristic of The Economist:

The SNP has set itself the unusual task of dismantling the British state within the constraints of a legal order that is stacked in its opponents’ favour. It wants revolution, without breaking so much as a window.

I am not so sure. Most important, the article seems to attach too much weight to Article 50 (of the Lisbon Treaty) as an enabler of Brexit and to the Scotland Act as a disabler of a referendum.

I would suggest that Article 50 simply defined the mechanism and process of leaving rather than establishing the possibility of doing so for the first time. Imagining for a moment that there was no Article 50 but that the UK government had proceeded with the Brexit referendum anyway with the same result, is it credible that EU leaders would simply have said: “That’s very interesting, but there is no defined mechanism by which you can leave, so there is nothing to discuss.”? And the same applies to the Scotland Act.

Let’s postulate the following hypothetical sequence of events to come.

1 Voters who opt for the SNP in the coming Scottish Parliament elections already know the party plans to pursue another referendum. So, an SNP victory will establish prima facie popular legitimacy for holding a referendum.

2 The SNP wins enough votes and seats at the elections to remain the government in Scotland and to win a vote in the Parliament to formally request London’s permission to proceed.

3 The UK Government continues to refuse that permission.

4 The Scottish Government proceeds with and wins an advisory referendum.

Would it be credible for the UK government to continue to refuse to engage with the Scottish Government on implementing that mandate?

The UK’s Brexit journey has weakened whatever broader “moral” entitlement London might have had to frustrate this path towards independence in several ways.

Although the Brexit referendum was nominally advisory only, justifiably and probably inevitably, it immediately established Brexit as a political imperative. Plebiscitory democracy shoved parliamentary democracy to the sideline. As Scottish Secretary, Alister Jack, wrote in The Irish Times in January:

As you all know, the United Kingdom, following the biggest democratic exercise in our history, has left the European Union.

Given the narrow popular majority in favour of Brexit, it would be hard for London to accede to an independence referendum but to insist on a majority higher than 50%+1 of the votes for independence to proceed.

Likewise, though Scottish voters will want to see the fine print, it would be hard for London to insist on a specific independence “plan” as a pre-condition of the referendum. If a binary “yes/no” question was good enough for Brexit, it is good enough for independence.

And finally, it will be harder for the UK Government to argue the case for “union” as an inherently good thing. “Better together” will have an especially hollow ring when UK objections to EU membership are rooted less in the practicalities than the very concept or principle of participation in a “union” being an unacceptable infringement of sovereignty.

The omens might look good right now when the issue is being considered only in the abstract. But the SNP has a tough job navigating a path to a successful referendum. And they need to remember that, while losing one referendum might be only a misfortune, losing a second in relatively quick succession would be worse than carelessness.

But, if they get to hold one at all, London can hardly object if the sponsors encourage citizens to vote “Yes” “to take back control”. Isn’t that what self-government is all about?



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