In the end, Nicola Sturgeon had to call for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Since the Brexit vote, she had been dancing precariously on the head of a pin. The result had snuck up on her every bit as much as did Cameron, Osborne and London’s political-media elite. She had not anticipated England and Wales voting to leave the EU. She had not – truth be told – expected to be handed such a gift for her cause. And so, at first, she stumbled. For months she has coyly told journalists and voters that a second referendum was ‘likely’, ‘very likely’, ‘almost certain’ and ‘all but inevitable’ – all the while weighing her options, testing the water, avoiding committing herself too concretely. But you can’t run on forever, making observations and predictions but refusing to act; not if you are going to be a political leader rather than a political commentator. Really, her only choice was to call a vote. To do otherwise would not only have been cowardly, it could have sucked the wind from the sails of the only thing that Sturgeon and her party are really, 100% committed to. Freedom, whatever that means.
After all, if the First Minister of a party whose sole ambition is independence won’t push their cause, how can anyone else be expected to get excited about it? All of which begs the question of why she didn’t move sooner – and it is the answer to this question in which the seeds of the next ‘Better Together’ campaign can be found.
One, whilst Scotland may have voted to stay in the EU, Brexit doesn’t make the case for independence any stronger on the economics. Indeed, the vulnerability of the Scottish economy is brought into sharper relief in the context of a U.K. that is outside the Single Market. An independent Scotland will not – as things stand – be an automatic member of the EU. They can apply but myriad barriers will need to be surmounted – not least the sensitivities of Spain, worried about their own troublesome separatists and the precedent Scottish accession would set. In effect, a vote to leave the U.K. now represents a choice to leave one single market (within Great Britain) out of anger at leaving another (within the EU). The internal contradictions of this position are not complex or difficult to explain and to understand.
Two, in a time of immense and sometimes actively frightening upheaval it would not be unreasonable for Scots to cling to what they know. Scottish independence at a time of prosperity and security might be seen as an attractive luxury purchase. As we are buffeted by global economic forces and grand political realignment, there is a danger for the SNP that independence looks whimsical and self-indulgent to voters. People tend not to buy a Rolex the day redundancy notices are handed out.
It is these considerations (combined with her own instinct to caution) that have stayed Sturgeon’s hand till today. And they are powerful arguments; rational, logical etc. But what they are not are emotionally satisfying. And that is why no-one is entitled to any hubris about the outcome of a second vote, should one be granted.
The Brexit vote, the US Presidential election, the nagging popularity of Jeremy Corbyn with Labour members – the days when rational self-interest could be counted on to trump matters of identity and emotion are long gone (if they were ever, really, with us). And there is a compelling case against the Union to be made – one that Nicola Sturgeon began laying out today. To use the – apt – language of the divorce lawyer, the argument for independence now is one of ‘unreasonable behaviour’. These lunatics with whom Scots have been co-habiting for three hundred years have lost the plot. Time to get out, for the sake of our nerves and our dignity. Who knows what they’ll do next? And god knows we’ve tried and tried but these folk just will not listen to sense…
What next? Well Sturgeon will almost certainly win her vote in Holyrood to demand a referendum. True, she lacks a majority but she has the votes – cobbled together from Greens – to be pretty confident. And then the ball is in Theresa May’s court. She does not have to agree but to say ‘no’ flatly is to invite legitimate outrage even from soft-Unionists north of the border. And so expect the Prime Minister to go heavy on the ‘when’ rather than the ‘if’. The argument will be that it is wrong to ask Scotland to vote until they have had the chance to sample life inside the UK but outside the EU – that the referendum must wait not until the Autumn, as Sturgeon wants, but until after we have fully Brexited. Expect endless, heated back-and-forth on this question – much of it theatre, none of it particularly enlightening.
And what of the rest of us? Another referendum, another polarising plebiscite, yet more dark warnings and further furious grievance mongering. The future of the country is at stake – again. Our economy risks collapse – again. It’s all on a knife edge – again. Polities resemble politicians in a crucial regard, we get tired too. There is only so much drama people can take, only so many apocalypses we can believe in. In the end, people either stop listening or they start getting really, properly angry. We should be worried on either front.