Scottish Unionists can barely conceal their glee at the ongoing Alex Salmon/Nicola Sturgeon debacle. They hope that the scandal might give them a new lease of life. And there is reason to believe that they are right. In the past six months, the polls have consistently shown that most Scots now support independence. But for the first time, last month, one poll put ‘No’ in the lead. It’s just one poll, but it does suggest that the scandal might be cutting through, at least for now. It must also be pointed out that there is not much of an appetite for a referendum in the immediate future in Scotland.


The case against Independence

Having said this, it still looks likely that the SNP will win a majority in the upcoming Holyrood elections, and they will do so on a platform of holding a second referendum. And when you look at the state of the Unionists, it is unsurprising (and I speak as a Unionist). Yes, it is possible that the newly elected leader of Scottish Labour, Anas Sarwar, will be more effective than his predecessors (not hard). But much of the anti-independence movement is starting to look eerily like the Remain campaign in 2016 (and we all know how that ended). They are focusing purely on the economic argument against independence (i.e., the currency, pensions etc). These are of course important issues, but to win they need to be able to make an emotional case as well.

The thing is, there is a good emotional case to be made against independence. The Unionists could talk about family ties, and what Scotland has achieved as part of the United Kingdom (such as the Scottish Enlightenment). They could also make the point that, since the SNP’s aim is independence, rather than making devolution work, they should elect a government that is committed to the latter: devolution.

The case for a second referendum

However, while there is a good argument to be made for the Union, there is not a good case to be made against holding a second independence referendum. It might be reasonable to oppose it in the short term, given the situation with the pandemic, but not in the long term.

And there is one simple reason for this: Brexit. One of the main arguments in favour of the United Kingdom in 2014 was that remaining in the UK meant remaining in the European Union. But, two years later, the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave the EU, whereas Scotland voted decisively to remain. It has correctly been pointed out that the 2014 referendum was sold as a once-in-a-generation vote. But in the 2016 Holyrood elections, the SNP stated in their manifesto, that if there were a ‘material change of circumstance, there should be a second vote. And if Brexit is not a significant change in circumstances, I do not know what is (especially given how the Scottish fishing industry is currently being impacted).

I don’t think a lot of pro-UK politicians realise that when they smile wisely and state that once in a generation means once in a generation, it just antagonises indy-curious voters even further. Because they know the circumstances are not the same. And they suspect (correctly) that Unionists oppose a second vote because they fear they will lose. In other words, they do not trust the voters to make the ‘right’ decision (as was the case with Brexit).

How long can Westminster play the ‘I’m avoiding you’ game?

What is worrying is that if Westminster continues to bury its head in the sand and refuses to grant a second vote, the situation could become like Catalonia, with the SNP holding an illegal referendum. Nicola Sturgeon is under pressure from some elements in her party to do just this. This would make the situation even more acrimonious than it already is.

But Boris Johnson clearly has other ideas. He has said recently that he would not grant a second vote. He could reasonably argue that, while the SNP might win the Holyrood elections on a mandate of holding a second independence referendum in May, he stood on a manifesto of not holding one in 2019. In fact, one of the main attack lines he used against Jeremy Corbyn was that a Labour government propped up by the SNP would hold ‘two divisive referendums’ (one on the EU, one on Scotland). This creates, as Ruth Davidson put it, ‘a clash of mandates’. The outcome then is that Johnson can just about get away with delaying a referendum until after the next election. But no longer than that.