Four reasons the Tories are refusing a Scottish referendum – and two reasons they’ll regret it

“ The position remains the same .” These were the words the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alastair Jack, used to dismiss the Scottish Government’s renewed call for another independence vote. His rejection was followed by a statement from
Nicola Sturgeon reiterating her demands. But it feels very unlikely that 2020
will see a second vote. Despite last month’s SNP landslide and the
party’s ongoing momentum, the Tories hope that the tables will soon turn. I’m not
a Tory, and would vote Yes to independence, but I suspect there are four
reasons for them to feel optimistic. Inhibitors for independence The first is the trial of former First
Minister, Alex Salmond, who is facing 14 charges, including one for attempted
rape. Without speculating about what may arise in court this March, it is fair
to say that it’s a big unknown. It may not impact support for independence, but
it could affect support for the SNP. The second reason is that as things stand there
is no meaningful plan for how independence will look. A lot has changed since
2014, but the closest the Scottish Government has got to presenting a new
vision is the Growth Commission
paper it published in 2018. However, it hasn’t become a major part
of its narrative and wasn’t even mentioned in Nicola Sturgeon’s speech this
morning. The questions are familiar (currency, borders,
trade), but they need new and compelling answers. The Tories will hope that as
Brexit settles down and the status quo becomes apparent, the SNP is forced to
provide more details and it will make the risk look greater. The third reason is the polls. They show differing
numbers, but support for the union leads in almost all of them. Over recent
months, the range for Yes has been 38%-48% (average 43%) while No has been 42%-50%
(average 46%). Polls show most Scots
think Holyrood should have the power to hold referendums, but also that most do not want
one this year. This leads to the fourth reason, and arguably
the most important. There is an election next May. The Scottish Parliament uses
a proportional electoral system, and, as things stand the chances of returning
a pro-independence majority are up-in-the-air. At present, the votes of SNP and Green MSPs mean there is a small majority of parliamentarians in favour of independence. However, even without factoring in the points above, recent polls suggest this is unlikely to be repeated without a historically high Green vote. It is almost certain the SNP will win next
year’s election, but if over 50% of elected MSPs oppose another referendum then
it would remove the chances of another vote for the short-medium term. That
will be the Tories’ main task. Johnson is taking a more hands-on approach to
Scotland than his predecessor. He’s established a ‘ Union unit ’ in
Downing Street, put a greater focus on the SNP’s patchy domestic record and hinted at extra
public spending . He has appointed himself Minister of the
Union and intends to make more visits as part of his emphasis on “ strengthening the
union .” It’s unclear how helpful this will be. Last
month the Scottish Tory vote fell by 3.5% and
they lost half their MPs. There is little love for Johnson, with one poll
putting his approval rating at -37%. The Tories may be in a healthier position
than 10 years ago, but they still face major problems from an electorate that
hasn’t voted them first in any election for 50 years. Strains on the union This ties into the first reason they may come
to regret their approach. Polls generally show a No lead, but, looking at the
longer-term, the trend is away from the union. 10 years ago, the prospect of
Scottish independence polling at current levels would have been unthinkable. The
demographic polarisation is stark, with roughly two-thirds of Scots
under 50 supporting independence and two thirds over 50 opposing it. Particularly if Scotland elects a
pro-independence majority next May, it feels reasonable to assume the gradual
shift away from the union will continue, especially with an unpopular Tory
government in Westminster and the further erosion of UK institutions – the welfare
state, the Labour Party etc. There is no natural leader for a No campaign –
with no pro-union leader polling over 20% for
trust. Is the long-term political terrain really any more favourable? This brings us to the other reason: Brexit.
Assuming an agreement is reached, the implementation period will end a matter
of months before Scots vote at Holyrood. If it leads to economic turbulence it
could be hard to keep the pro-independence vote down. Even if the SNP vote
flatlines, there’s no reason to think the pro-union parties are in for a
significant boost. If next year returns a pro-independence
parliament, can the Tories keep saying no? They took that tact throughout the
90s and support of devolution soared. Time would allow the Scottish Government to get
its proposals in order and support for independence to become further entrenched.
It is likely that a delayed referendum is better for Yes – even if not
necessarily for the SNP. A lot will change in the months ahead. Next May’s Scottish election is already looking like it could be the most historically significant in the history of the UK. It may even prove to be the last one. Andrew Smith is a Glasgow-based political campaigner. He works for a human rights organisation. Follow him on  Twitter.

2020-01-31 | Movement Politics, JOHNSON, Scottish Independence | English |