Iain Martin

Sturgeon’s bluff

Only one thing will determine a second Scottish independence vote: whether she really thinks she can win

Sturgeon’s bluff
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It ought not to be a surprise that Alex Salmond, Scotland’s former First Minister, has declared that the vote to leave the European Union is the trigger for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Salmond thinks everything is an excuse for another go. If a new Bay City Rollers album suffered poor reviews south of the border, or an English football pundit failed to declare Archie Gemmill’s wonder goal for Scotland against Holland in the 1978 world cup the best ever, Salmond would be right there on the UK’s television screens, chortling at the brilliance of his own wit, before intoning gravely that this insult is surely the final straw for the United Kingdom.

Salmond has been demanding a second Scottish referendum almost from the moment he lost the last one. Having been beaten 55-45 on a turnout of 85 per cent in 2014, the hotheaded and emotional Salmond struggles, in a manner that is psychologically interesting, to process that defeat. It is customary to affix the term ‘canny’ to Salmond whenever he is written about outside Scotland. But his successor Nicola Sturgeon is actually the more sensible operator, capable of calmness and strategic subtlety. She is also not (yet) an egomaniac.

Sadly, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, even Sturgeon succumbed to over-excitement, look-at-me delirium and constitutional chicanery. On what seemed like an hourly basis in the days after the EU vote, Scotland’s First Minister gave interviews, convened press conferences and hosted Scottish cabinet meetings, all the time wearing her best I-am-a-stateswoman frown.

The Scottish Parliament might be able to block Brexit, she said. No, it cannot. Yes, 1.5 million Scots may have voted to Remain in the European Union, but 2 million Scots voted to remain in the UK less than two years ago. The UK that existed before 23 June no longer exists, she said. Wrong. It very much exists, and until Article 50 and the two-year process is triggered the UK is in the EU.

Sturgeon’s promise to get on with preparing a second independence referendum has been cheered on by some defeated Remainers in London, who are so annoyed at having lost the EU referendum that they are willing to accept that Britain will now break up as a result. Her mantra — Brexit means Scotland goes — was repeated by Remainers in the campaign. But in so doing, they accepted Scottish Nationalist claims at their own inflated estimation — always a bad idea.

Take, for example, the debate on the EU referendum held in the Scottish parliament this week. Even by the standards of that body (and its moral superiority complex) this was a festival of cant, piety and self-regard. Scotland is European, it was repeatedly said. Indeed, and so are England and Wales — they simply choose not to be in the European Union (as did a third of SNP voters, as it happens). ‘It was enough to make me a Leaver,’ was how one Remainer watching from the gallery put it.

In the parts of the London media which has seen its assumptions (and much of its worldview) put into the shredder of history by the vote for Brexit, the despondent view seems to be that these forces, the Nationalists and Scottish Lib Dem politicians flirting with independence, will definitely persuade the Scottish electorate to vote to leave the UK soon. That is far from a certain outcome.

Recent polls suggest that Brexit has hardened the support for independence, but not by much. The effect may soon dissipate. While it is perfectly possible that Scotland will end up voting for independence, such an outcome was feasible even without the impact of the EU referendum. But as with so many other aspects of the post-Brexit world, it depends. For a start, the precise shape of the EU that the Scottish nomenklatura is trying to stay in is in doubt. Who knows what it will look like in several years’ time. The Italian banking crisis could provoke seismic upheaval in the eurozone. Other countries may try to leave the EU. By 2018, the UK may be operating with the EU on the basis of a compromise arrangement — associate status for example — that the majority of Scots find acceptable.

What also needs considering calmly is the shape of an SNP offer in the event of the party holding a referendum. The questions have not gone away since 2014. What will the Scottish currency be post-independence? How about the euro? Will there be a full border with England?

This will all be OK, says Sturgeon with breezy certainty. On close examination, hers is a wish-list even more fanciful than that contained in the first draft of a Boris Johnson column. Scotland will keep the pound and an entirely open border with England, but remain in the EU.

This demonstrates that the financial lesson of the last Scottish referendum has still not been absorbed. If Scotland keeps the pound, it will not have a banking union or any protection for its financial system. If the more logical solution is proposed — a new Scottish currency and central bank, joining the euro queue — that really does mean operating in a different currency from the country that buys 60 per cent of Scotland’s exports.

It is quite possible that Scots will vote for independence. Perhaps out of disgust, perhaps convinced by the SNP’s prospectus. They may perhaps wish to find contributions for a hungry Brussels, decide not to pool risk with England and embark on the sizeable austerity package that would be required by European budgetary rules. Nothing, in the current political climate, could be ruled out. But let’s just say that this is far from certain.

The Union now has someone more than capable of highlighting the weaknesses in the SNP’s case in the form of Ruth Davidson, the dynamic Scottish Tory leader who was for Remain but who is Britain’s best defender of the positive case for the UK.

At present, nothing will eclipse the storm of anger among Scotland’s politically engaged. You may notice, incidentally, that straight away there have been chippy SNP demands that no one — in London or Scotland — should dare try to block a referendum. No one will seriously try to do this and it should be remembered that the largest obstacle to the holding of a referendum in Scotland is Nicola Sturgeon. She cannot risk calling it and losing again.

Dinner 3
Iain Martin is a former editor of the Scotsman.