Like the rest of the United Kingdom, Scotland has had a glorious summer this year, with near record temperatures. Temperatures are also rising in the political world, with calls for a second referendum on independence becoming louder, clearer and with increasing effect.
The 2014 referendum delivered a decisive result, with 55.3 per cent of the Scottish people voting to remain within the union. Far from it being a ‘once-in-a-generation’ event, as claimed by the SNP before the vote, they almost immediately called for a second chance. Their 2016 election manifesto declared that a ‘significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will’, would justify a second independence referendum.
Their opportunity came in June 2016 when 62 per cent of Scots supported to remain within the EU, with only 38 er cent voting to leave — a result which was clearly at odds with rest of the United Kingdom. Nicola Sturgeon had been given a lifeline to call for a rerun of the 2014 vote. Her problem, of course, was that many of her core supporters were in the Leave camp, and might not support independence if it led to an immediate move by an independent Scotland to apply to join the EU.
The likelihood of success in a second independence referendum seems increasingly doubtful, with opinion polls suggesting that, notwithstanding the EU vote, most Scots still support the Union. It would be folly, however, for Westminster to be lulled into the belief that the threat of independence is dead. It is far from dead.
The here and now
The independence movement has been buoyed up by recent rallies in Glasgow, Dumfries and, most evocatively, Bannockburn, attracting thousands marching ‘All Under One Banner’ — emphasising that the goal of independence surmounts all other differences. The membership of the SNP has swollen by a further 5,000 in the past month alone, indicative of a strengthening of public support for independence.
Brexit was a momentous event for the United Kingdom, affecting not just her future relationship with Europe but internal relationships amongst the four nations. Businesses, communities and individuals are all feeling anxious and concerned for their future.
Theresa May has taken on the almost impossible task of negotiating the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU, trying to keep her own divided party from erupting into all-out war, and appeasing the diverse concerns expressed across the country. If Theresa May and Westminster are keen for Britain to continue to be seen as an open, welcoming country where business and people can flourish post-Brexit, then they also need to acknowledge that maintaining the Union has to be a fundamental priority. A fractured country would hardly be one where future investors would feel confident, particularly in the wake of our departure from the EU. Communities and businesses need certainty, security and stability.
Recent events suggest that Westminster is oblivious to the renewed threat from independence, or the effect this would have on post-Brexit England. When the issue of the effect that withdrawal would have on devolution came before Parliament, the Government curtailed debating time to a mere 15 minutes and disallowed any Scottish MP from participating. By paying little regard to the Sewell Convention and sidelining the issue of devolution in this way, Westminster played directly into the hands of the SNP and gave them what they wanted: the opportunity to claim Westminster is seeking to reclaim powers from Brussels and that those reclaimed powers will not be devolved further, thereby challenging the devolution settlement.
In so doing, they are seeming to treat Scotland and the Scots contemptuously. By acting in this manner, Westminster is doing far more to alienate the Scots (and the Welsh and Irish for that matter), and ultimately divide the UK, than Nicola Sturgeon, or the SNP, can ever do. The subsequent walk out from Parliament by all SNP MPs may have been a publicity stunt, but it was one which resonated with many Scots.
In light of such events, it is perceived that only a Scottish Parliament will look after the future interests of the Scots. Perceptions matter and the seemingly disdainful way in which Theresa May, the Conservatives and Westminster treat Scotland drives many who previously supported the Union seriously to consider whether an independent Scotland would not be preferable. Many, who had been strong supporters of the ‘Better Together’ campaign have changed their allegiance. The SNP need do nothing but gloat.
If England wants to ensure the future of the United Kingdom, the current Westminster administration must take the initiative, listen to the devolved institutions, act in accordance with the devolution principles, and give no opportunity for the independence movement to argue that the constituent parts are being ignored or sidelined by a seemingly arrogant and superior power.
As for Theresa May, by trying to prevent her party from splitting over Europe, which could herald the end of the Conservatives in its current form, she risks fracturing the Kingdom. It is not just Scotland that is looking at its constitutional future. The issue of the Irish border post-Brexit has resulted in renewed calls for a united Ireland, and of course Northern Ireland also voted to Remain. If Brexit results in a disunited Kingdom, the blame will fall at the door of No. 10 and the Conservatives.
A united future?
The United Kingdom has endured political, economic and social instability for over a decade. The economic crisis of 2007/8 and two subsequent divisive referendums have polarized opinions and attitudes. We need certainty, stability and unity, and the responsibility for achieving that lies with Theresa May and her cabinet. Brexit will happen and, just as we entered Europe as one country, so we will leave, and face the future, as one united country.
Theresa May and her party must be conscious of the rising political temperature in Scotland. She must act at all times towards finding a resolution to the devolution issues arising out of Brexit. She must keep meaningful dialogue open. And she must allow open debate from differing sides if she wants to see the United Kingdom remain united.