In the wake of the Catalonian crisis, former Minister of State 1997-2003 and Energy Minister 2001-2003, the Right Honourable Brian Wilson believes that Sturgeon’s demand for a second Scottish referendum has monumentally backfired. He also observes that the SNP is clearly failing on education, health and the economy.
It is small wonder that Scottish Nationalists have offered their services as cheerleaders to their Catalonian counterparts. While the rest of Europe has rapidly distanced itself from the illegal unilateral declaration of independence, the SNP-run Scottish government has found it necessary to express “respect and understanding” for this act of derring-do. They might as well have attached a message saying: “Wish it was us”.
Encouraging the break-up of another European state is a consolation prize for those who have failed to break up their own. Of course, there could be political pickings down the road: if the secessionist precedent was set in Spain, it might make the Scottish case easier to argue. However, it’s a risky strategy, which Spain is unlikely to forgive or forget and through its Catalonian meddling, the SNP has killed off any chance it might have had of linking independence to continuing EU membership, which remains one of its central platforms.
In reality, Catalonia has been replicating a phenomenon with which Scotland has long been familiar, whereby a noisy, substantial minority seeks to convey the impression of being the majority. In Scotland, it took a referendum in 2014 to correct that misapprehension and the result confirmed an important lesson: flag-waving crowds, however vast, are a poor guide to the balance of opinion in a society divided along constitutional lines. The arrogance of those who behave as if they have the right to speak for the nation may be able to persuade the majority into discreet silence, but only until they have the chance to strike back.
Once the 2012 Scottish Parliament elections delivered a pro-independence majority, the demand for a referendum was inescapable. David Cameron got that right and I am sure many anti-independence Catalans would value the same opportunity to put the issue to the test. However, historical circumstances have created a different constitutional legacy. That is the one, which must be abided by unless and until, it is changed by democratic means. Scotland is not Catalonia.
In the UK, there was no doubt about the constitutional right to secede if that is what a majority desired. However much the Scottish Nationalists pretend otherwise, their problem has never been that someone is denying Scotland something the majority demands; on the contrary, it is that a clear majority does not want it. This seems unlikely to change any time soon but one clear lesson – which Madrid has doubtless noticed – is that once the genie is out of the bottle, it tends to stay there. In the mindset of Nationalists, there is no such thing as a “once-in-a-generation” referendum, far less a permanent decision. As soon as they have lost one referendum, the clamour and maneuvering begin for the next one. The effect of this on any society is deeply divisive and corrosive.
The Scottish Nationalists have lived for decades by tactical advance. Whoever was in power at Westminster was, by definition, doing Scotland down. In rural Scotland, they presented themselves as the most effective anti-Labour vote. In the cities, they gained ground by protesting that Labour was not left-wing enough. The SNP’s opponents bemoaned their own inability to pin down the chameleon. In truth, many who voted for the SNP had little interest in “left” or “right” positioning and even less in independence, so long as it remained a remote prospect. The SNP garnered their votes and seats on the basis of a vague perception that they “stood up for Scotland”.
Holyrood provided them with a platform for a narrative of permanent grievance and with devolution based on proportional representation, it was relatively easy for them to convert their “substantial minority” status into one of being the biggest party at Holyrood. Some of us predicted it long before it happened. The 2014 referendum led to a realignment of Scottish politics with Scotland’s constitutional status as fault line.
In the short-term, the SNP flourished on that basis. The 45% who voted for independence held together as a single electoral force. While 45% does not win referendums, it is enough to stroll home under the Westminster electoral system. With the referendum wounds still raw, the 2015 General Election produced a near wipe-out of other parties in Scotland. The SNP took 58 of 61 available seats. They were rulers of all they surveyed and they might have held that position indefinitely. Then along came the EU referendum to disrupt this seemingly inexorable process.
At first, it seemed that the Brexit result was manna from heaven for the SNP. Tactically, it could not have been better from their perspective. The UK as a whole voted to leave the EU, while Scotland voted comfortably – by 62% to 38% – to stay in. Scotland was being dragged out of the EU against its will by the wicked English. Only independence could keep us in the EU and the Single Market. The script could not have been written any better or so it seemed to Nicola Sturgeon as she pinned her Saltire ever more hyperbolically to the Brussels mast. Her demands for a second independence referendum, more or less straight away, went into overdrive based on the supposed injustice to Scotland of the Brexit vote.
There were, however, complications, which Sturgeon had not foreseen and led to her huge misjudgment in demanding a second referendum. For a party, which had lived so long by tactical positioning, these were remarkable oversights. First, it became clear that nobody but her own hard core wanted a second independence referendum any time soon, regardless of Brexit. Furthermore, around one third of SNP supporters had voted for Brexit – a higher proportion than any other party in Scotland! The idea that these people would cry out for another independence referendum, on the specific premise that this would allow Scotland to remain in the EU, was crass. At the same time, support for the EU among Remain voters was more nuanced than Sturgeon assumed. As in the rest of the UK, most were prepared to see how Brexit plays out before becoming excited about it – and certainly not excited enough to want another independence referendum by 2019.
The electorate had the opportunity to articulate these messages in the 2017 General Election when 21 of the 58 SNP MPs were sent packing, less than two years after being elected. The swings against sitting MPs, particularly in areas where anti-EU sentiment ran high, were astonishing. Alex Salmond lost his seat on a 20% swing and the Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, suffered a similar fate as north-east Scotland, where fishing is a huge issue, reverted to the Tories. While England was fretting over Theresa May’s dismal performance, the long-lost army of natural Scottish Tories who had been voting SNP for two decades returned en masse to the fold. Much to its own surprise, Labour picked up eight seats. Tactical voting was widespread and its principal motivator was as opposition to the prospect of a second independence referendum. The SNP had paid a heavy price for Sturgeon’s misguided opportunism.
Another factor was the electorate’s increasing disenchantment with the SNP’s performance in government at Holyrood. While all the constitutional maneuvering is undoubtedly their primary preoccupation and political raison d’etre, the SNP has also been running devolved Scotland for a decade, with results, which might generously be described as mediocre. Economic growth is virtually non-existent and certainly below that of the UK. The economic case for independence, ramshackle at the best of times, has collapsed along with the price of oil. The Scottish situation is very different from wealthy Catalonia. Scotland runs a £15 billion deficit which would be cruelly exposed if independence forced us to live within our means.
According to most indicators, Scottish education is in a mess with shocking statistics for literacy and numeracy. The much-vaunted policy of “free” university tuition has actually resulted in a lower proportion of students from poorer backgrounds gaining access than in the rest of the UK. While not exactly in crisis, the NHS in Scotland recently “failed” seven out of eight key indicators, according to Audit Scotland. All this, in spite of £1,400 more per capita public expenditure than in the UK as a whole. It takes a while, but eventually, the electorate starts to notice.
The former SNP deputy leader, Jim Sillars, said recently that Nicola Sturgeon is only still in her leadership position because there is nobody better to replace her, which is probably now quite a widespread feeling in Nationalist ranks. Her poll ratings have tumbled from post-referendum stratospheric to the negative territory of mortals. Despite all this, however, it would be foolish to assume that the Nationalist slide will continue or accelerate. They still run Holyrood, albeit as a minority government since 2016. Westminster, with all its uncertainties, gives them a platform and support for independence still runs at around 40%.
If Brexit turns into a no-deal disaster, as the Nationalists fervently hope, they could still be the beneficiaries – another very good reason for ensuring that common sense prevails. The 2021 Holyrood elections will be crucial. If there is again a separatist majority, the whole rigmarole will start all over again. At least, the Scottish electorate will be a lot clearer in advance about what is at stake – and that “lending” votes to the SNP while at the same time not wanting independence carries a very high risk.