Alex Massie

Is another referendum on Scottish independence actually inevitable?

Is another referendum on Scottish independence actually inevitable?
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So here we go again. Alex Salmond, popping up on the Andrew Marr show while Nicola Sturgeon is in China, makes news without saying anything new about the circumstances in which the SNP might - or might not! - press for a second referendum on Scottish independence. David Cameron, also overseas, responds saying there's no need for any such plebiscite at any point in this parliament. Calm down, Jock. This will, I am sure, be well-received.

All of which should surprise precisely no-one. Seventy percent of SNP supporters want another referendum before the end of this parliament; 90 percent want one within ten years. In such circumstances, you can understand why Salmond thinks another referendum is 'inevitable'. Last September's referendum was, you should understand, just a temporary stay of execution for the Union; it was no kind of pardon.

Besides, at some deep, deep level, Salmond and those who think like him have not yet accepted the result. Not really, not in their heart of hearts. That is, they do not think it was an honest result or the product of what the Scottish people actually want. Or would want if only they could see what was best for them.

I mean, you know, if Gordon Brown had not saved the day and if The Vow had not hoodwinked the plain people of Scotland everything would have been different. And if the BBC - and its allies in the Unionist press - had not so thoroughly talked Scotland down at every opportunity and if Project Fear had not terrified easily-startled pensioners with false stories about pensions and the pound and all the rest of it then, well, things would have been very different. If the people had been allowed to see clearly they would have recognised that, objectively, independence is not only the best option for Scotland, it is, really, when you get down to it and take a proper look at things, the only option. We was cheated, you understand.

So, a mulligan. We need to do it all again. September's result, remember, was only a flesh wound.

Which is fine. No-one sensible ever thought defeat would require the SNP to give-up on independence. Nevertheless, I think it's reasonable to suppose that most SNP voters are closer to Alex Salmond on the question of a second referendum than they are to Nicola Sturgeon. The First Minister has been notably more cautious than her predecessor which is not so surprising since she'd like to be remembered as the leader who won a referendum, not the one who lost it. That means waiting until such time as it seems more likely than not that Scotland would vote Yes.

There is, as wise counsellors advise the Nats, no sign that time has come. If there were another referendum next month Scotland would still, albeit narrowly, probably vote No. And while losing one plebiscite might be reckoned a misfortune, losing two amounts to carelessness. Whatever else she is, Ms Sturgeon is neither a careless politician nor a reckless one.

Besides, there's little sign of there being anything like the 'material change' in circumstance Ms Sturgeon has previously suggested would be necessary to justify a second referendum. The Vow, no matter how much Salmond insists otherwise, did not promise to implement whatever the SNP would put into their 2015 manifesto. Secondly, Britain seems - at least for now - unlikely to vote to leave the European Union. And thirdly, even by Alex Salmond's medal-winning standards of chutzpah, it takes some nerve to demand a referendum because you reject 'austerity' while recommending a result that would impose vastly greater austerity than the economic policies you argue might justify revisiting the national question.

This, in the end, is what no-one knows: would demographic changes that seem, at present, to be running in the SNP's favour off-set and out-weigh economic changes that, at present, are moving against the SNP?

The collapse in oil prices means that, unavoidably, Scotland's economic prospects, relative to the rest of the UK, are worse than they were five years ago. Not, to be clear, to the extent that the country is too poor to be independent but Scotland would quite clearly, at least initially, be poorer as an independent state. That doesn't mean it wouldn't be worth it but it's still the kind of thing liable to concentrate minds and if you doubt the truth of this you might care to pause and wonder why the SNP devoted so much time to trying to persuade us we'd all be richer after independence.

And, who knows, in the long-run we might be. But not in the short term. Because annual deficits of 8-10 percent are not sustainable forever but that, according to the Scottish government's own figures, is where we'd begin. You will have noticed too, I am sure, that John Swinney no longer talks about establishing an oil fund. And, absent oil revenues, the Scottish economy would have to grow much more rapidly than the rest of the UK economy to make up the shortfall. Now, sure, this could happen. Sure, you could do some things differently. And, sure again, Scotland would hardly become a wasteland. But, still, it's a hefty ask and one that a small-c conservative country might feel no great need to take on.

Nothing is certain, of course, and the true believers - for whom independence is the answer to any and every question - will never be satisfied by anything short of that happy state of grace but middle-Scotland, that slice of the electorate that will decide the issue when, as it may well, it returns, may find that they quite like the current half-way house. That is, maintaining, via the SNP, a chunky expression of a distinct Scottish political consciousness without having to go to the time, trouble, effort and expense of actually setting up a brand new state.

That's also one reason why though Sturgeon must leave open the possibility of another referendum she is wary of allowing the faithful to determine the timing and circumstances of that vote. But if that's a tricky passage for Sturgeon to navigate, things are little easier for David Cameron. He might say No to another referendum but what if the Scottish people say Yes? What does he do then?