Alex Massie

The battle for Scottish independence is far from over

The battle for Scottish independence is far from over
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It is August and, except in Washington and Pyongyang, the square root of heehaw is happening. This poses certain difficulties for the residents of Grub Street. Desperate times call for desperate measures and if that means burning your hot take then so be it. 

Hence the recent proliferation of articles claiming that Scottish nationalism is on the brink of extinction, undone by internecine feuding and subject to the implacable laws of diminishing returns. Well, there is just enough truth in this for it to be a vaguely tenable proposition: the SNP did endure a terrible election result in June (even though they remain the most popular party in Scotland) and it is also true that Nicola Sturgeon’s government has a tired and wan look about it at present (though, hey, she remains the favourite to be First Minister after the next Scottish parliamentary elections). Renewing your party while in government is hard at the best of times and these are not the best of times for the SNP. 

Still, we can make too much of this. Let me explain this supposed crisis. Various people of whom the average voter has never heard have been criticising, and falling out with, other people of whom the average voter has never heard. In not a single instance are any of these people the people who lead the movement for independence. Many of them are people who are barely household names in their own households and not just because many of them Tweet pseudonymously.    

Granted, it is true that for the first time you can hear that questions being asked of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership (though these are often carefully phrased, focusing on her husband’s role as SNP chief executive rather than on the First Minister herself). And it is a simple matter to find serious SNP people who think the party needs to rethink its strategy after a disappointing year that delivered much less than either it or its opponents thought it would. This is a time for taking stock and thinking, not for a fresh campaign for an independence referendum the people do not want and that, in any case, Ms Sturgeon no longer has the moral authority to demand, let alone deliver. 

There are many people who want to believe the case for independence has collapsed. At least some of these people should know better. It has become customary to observe that this is a time of considerable political volatility. And so it is. Which suggests that it might be imprudent to write off the notion that Scotland might one day demand a vote on independence and then vote for it. The circumstances that led to the 2014 referendum were in many ways some gorgeous accident but that hardly means they, or something like them, cannot happen again. Even, if you will allow me to say so, at the cost of living like this. 

It is the economic case for independence that needs revisiting and it is, frankly, too soon to say how that may be refashioned and recalculated for a new reality we have not yet even experienced. It will almost certainly be a tough sell and much will depend on how the success - or, heaven forbid, failure - of Brexit is perceived by the general public. At the risk of being all Chou En Lai, it is far too soon to say how this will shake out. 

But we can certainly say that although the SNP’s share of the vote fell to 37 per cent in June, support for independence remains above the 40 per cent needed to keep the idea a going concern. The nationalists haven’t gone away you know, and if you write as though they have then, well, you should know better than that. Some of this support may be soft - an expression of a nice idea, all things being equal while reluctantly acknowledging, alas, the unequal nature of this fallen world - but enough of it is solid enough to ensure that the constitutional question is far from settled. 

And, again, the long-term trends on identity - the decline of British sentiment and feeling north of the border and the rise in a purely Scottish sense of identity - favour the secessionists. People’s views often change as they get older, of course, and loss aversion is a powerful corrective force but, nonetheless and even if you accept that demographics are not destiny, you should remember that the Tory revival in Scotland was based, above all, on two things: the votes of pensioners and the fact many SNP-Yes voters stayed at home. 

Those were real things, producing real results and a real revival. Nevertheless, the idea the SNP is finished is now more popular than it should be. A reverse, even a significant one, is not the same as a capitulation. The party remains the dominant force in Scotland amongst younger voters. By which I mean anyone under the age of 50. 

Or, to put it another way, if the independence movement is having a nervous breakdown while still enjoying the support of more than 40 per cent of Scottish voters, I’d hate to see what it looks like, or the level of support it can command, when it’s hale and hearty. 

The problem the movement faces is not winning support for independence, per se, it is, rather, winning support for a legitimate second referendum. These are two very different matters. Pushing for a second referendum within five years of the first now seems a clear mistake. Too much, too soon and, more to the point, too much like cheating or treating the electorate with a measure of contempt. You silly fools didn’t mean to vote No, did you? Well, now you can have a chance to redeem yourselves. 

That was a mark of a movement that swallowed its own hype. Two million Scots rejected independence and knew what they were doing when they did so. They were not gulled or cajoled or bribed or hoodwinked into voting No. They did so for reasons as multifarious as those enjoyed by their compatriots who voted Yes but they were not fools. And they understood that they were taking part in an exercise of national self-determination and have subsequently looked askance at those people who tell them this was not so or that their vote was wrong. As the Tories put it this year: We said No and We Meant It. 

I suspect this argument still has some life in it. But at some point the balance of an intuitively-understood sense of fairness will begin to tilt back towards the nationalists. At some point - after, perhaps, something close to a generation - the idea of a second referendum will no longer seem so outrageous. At that point the SNP’s claim of righteousness may begin to seem more appealing again. 

Still, divisions in the wider independence movement are useful for Unionists. ‘You don’t have to be SNP to be Yes’ is true as far as it goes but it remains the case that if independence is ever delivered it will be because the SNP has done most of the heavy lifting. That is a matter of simple parliamentary arithmetic. There can be no second independence referendum without a vote in the Scottish parliament authorising it (and without the UK government’s agreement too). As matters stand, a second referendum before the next Holyrood election in 2021 looks unlikely. Not impossible, but improbable. 

2021, then, will be yet another proxy referendum on whether there should be a real referendum. Ms Sturgeon and her allies need 65 votes. At present, you wouldn’t bet on them getting there. Which would postpone a referendum - assuming Labour holds its nerve - until some time after 2026 at the soonest. Which in turn means it’s unlikely - though not impossible -  Nicola Sturgeon will ever be the midwife of independence. That’s so far distant, you can understand the chuntering of those for whom independence was needed yesterday. 

The SNP has been waiting 80 years for independence. It can wait a little longer, even if some of the Yes movement’s supporters - those souls whose identity is now in large part defined and proclaimed by their politics - chafe at being asked to display some patience. This is a long-term struggle and sensible Unionists understand that winning in 2017 is not the same as seeing off the threat forever.