The question of Scottish indepedence is bigger than Sturgeon and Salmond – but it might not be bigger than Brexit

If different people were running the UK, Brexit could be sold as a fair warning to Scottish ‘yes’ voters. But Johnson and Gove have been deprived of their most potent argument

Tom Peck
Thursday 25 February 2021 17:29 GMT
Anyone involved in Alex Salmond ‘conspiracy’ should be sacked, MSP says

From a scriptwriter’s perspective – and let’s face it, it’s clearly all scripted – Scotland voting for independence would be fairly satisfying. The years of chaos would dovetail nicely back to where they began, in 2014, and all the major themes would find a resolution of some kind. Brexit, Covid and, via Alex Salmond, even #MeToo would all have worked themselves into the story.

But there is so much there, so many epic plotlines, it would be hard for the viewer not to conclude that the central question had barely got a look in. Is Scotland better off on its own, or as part of the United Kingdom?

It was asked this question once, in the simpler times of 2014, and it came up with a clear answer. If, under a decade later, a measure of time that makes up around a fortieth of the life of the union itself, it decides it has changed its mind, that surely will be evidence that other, frankly lesser questions have intervened. That a momentous, historic, decision has been made as a proxy for fresher grievances.

Currently, the cause could be on the verge of being derailed by the appalling behaviour of Scotland’s former first minister Alex Salmond, and whether Nicola Sturgeon has been entirely honest about when and what she knew about it.

If two current inquiries into the subject conclude that Sturgeon was less than completely honest about that question to the Scottish parliament, it is a very clear resignation issue. She could – could – be unable to lead her party into May’s elections, and from there the path to a second independence referendum looks less clear (though it is not altogether clear, whatever the outcome).

To be British in the last 10 years is to have been trusted with altogether unusual amounts of power. The 2014 vote and the 2016 EU referendum vote were decisions of rare and immense importance, with significant consequences for generations of people who were not involved in them, and quite probably not yet born. It is, of course, impossible for the issues of the day not to shape such decisions. Had the Brexit referendum not happened at the height of the migrant crisis, might things have worked out differently? It’s possible.

It is intriguing that however grotesque the fallout from the Salmond-Sturgeon wars, and the ugliness of the spectacle is by no means limited to Salmond’s conduct with women, it is doing little to shift the dial in favour of or against independence.

Perhaps the Scottish voters do see the bigger picture, but it is distinctly possible they see a bigger and smaller one at the same time.

Nicola Sturgeon makes no secret of the fact that her taking up of the independence cause was driven by the events of the 1980s, when she was angry that Scotland was governed by Margaret Thatcher and the Tory party, when they hadn’t and would never vote for her.

That reasoning holds true today, arguably more so, through a revulsion re-energised by Brexit, which Scotland also didn’t vote for. For much of the independence movement, anti-Toryism remains the lodestar.

But it doesn’t answer the bigger question, one that would become suddenly bright and clear in the moment of independence, which is: who do they want to be governed by? The SNP has been in power in Holyrood for 14 years. It is suffering burnout and its record is not good. Without freedom to sell, what else have they got? Voters, for the most part, say “yes, please” at the ballot box. They do not say thank you, not even to Winston Churchill in 1945.

Curiously, in 2014, Cameron managed to deploy this argument to some effect. That this was not about about him, it didn’t matter if you didn’t like him, he wouldn’t be around forever. And it would seem that a sufficient number of Scottish voters glumly went along with it. Two years later, he tried it again, saying that the EU isn’t perfect but that we are begrudgingly better off in it. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. Voters rarely, if ever, vote for something for which no positive case is put forward and Cameron and Corbyn combined with deadly effect to see to that.

And this, sadly, is why Brexit changes everything. The Scottish independence question is bigger than Sturgeon vs Salmond, bigger than the SNP, bigger than Covid but probably not bigger than Brexit. It is the new context in which the momentous choice can be made again.

If different people were running the UK, Brexit could be sold as a fair warning to Scottish “yes” voters. In a slightly differently aligned universe, there would be a concrete example of the consequences of making a major decision without having given sufficient thought to the nitty-gritty (in the case of Brexit, there are many, though the greatest is the the simply unsolvable Irish border question).

With Scottish independence, the nitty-gritty is whole orders of magnitude more complex. How to divide up national debt, army divisions and natural resources, just for starters. There would also, for example, have to be a customs border between the two countries, where currently countless roads and motorways, freight and passenger trains pass without a moment’s hesitation.

But as the people in charge of the country are also the ones responsible for Brexit, they must pretend all is fine when it palpably is not, and thus deprive themselves of perhaps their most potent argument.

“This will be even worse than Brexit,” is a hard case for Michael Gove to make, though he did accidentally make it on Twitter recently, sharing a Financial Times article with that precise headline.

But Scotland is highly unlikely to change its mind on the wisdom of Brexit, and as such it is by and large inured both to the optimistic and pessimistic cases for unionism.

That Sturgeon and Salmond’s horrendous public battles do not appear to be damaging the cause should not trigger panic so much as weary resignation. The stars could scarcely have aligned for independence more perfectly.

In Downing Street now, Johnson and Gove are desperately searching for concrete ways that might keep the union together. Whatever they come up with, none would be a thousandth as effective as both men simply resigning, but that won’t happen.

In politics, it being real life, the movie never comes to an end. Time marches on. If the near future brings about what currently looks like the most likely outcome, there will certainly be a sequel and it may not make for easy viewing. Sadly, there does not appear to be anyone around who can legitimately ask the people to think about looking that far ahead.

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