Nationalists have long believed in the inevitability of Scottish independence; now unionists are beginning to believe in it, too. “It’s over,” one former Better Together figurehead told The Spectator, anonymously, in July. “The horse has bolted.”
The recent string of opinion polls showing, for the first time, sustained majority support for separation has spooked the British political class. Boris Johnson’s panicked sojourns north of the border, and the hastily-arranged decapitation of Jackson Carlaw as Scots Tory leader, suggest unionism is a cause in search of a strategy – a point underlined by the absurd idea, floated last week by the FT’s Sebastian Payne, that Britain’s future rests exclusively on the shoulders of Richard Leonard.
But just because independence increasingly looks preordained doesn’t mean that it is. The rising sense of indifference felt by many English voters – particularly English Brexit voters – towards the Union isn’t shared by the bulk of Conservative MPs, let alone Tory cabinet members, at Westminster. Indeed, as next year’s Holyrood election – which Nicola Sturgeon insists will be “the most important in Scotland’s history” – inches ever closer, the pressure on Johnson to launch a comprehensive defence of the Ukanian state will be huge.
The prime minister has two route maps in front of him. The first is old-fashioned, Thatcher-style obstructionism. This would mean blocking a re-run of the 2014 vote and forcing Scotland to remain part of the UK against its will, but at the cost of permanently alienating Scottish public opinion. The second, much more ambitiously, is to accept nationalist demands for another referendum and then try to stave the Yes movement off, again, at the ballot box.
The latter option, for obvious reasons, won’t be immediately appealing to Conservative sensibilities. But it could work, not least because the core elements of a revivified No campaign – based around a relentless focus on economic issues and funded by a network of billionaire donors and dark money think-tanks – are already largely in place.
Sturgeon’s plan for Scotland to continue using the pound without London’s consent is an existential threat to Scottish living standards, the Tories would argue. Faced with an entrenched 20 per cent budget deficit, isolated from its main trading partner by a hard border, and stripped of the financial security provided by the UK Treasury and the Bank of England, Scotland’s economy would nosedive. Pensions and mortgage rates would be ruined. Foreign investors would flee. Taxes would skyrocket overnight. Moreover, Sterlingisation has the potential to undermine one of the core planks of the SNP’s referendum pitch: rapid re-entry into EU, which – some analysts say – would only be possible after the creation of a Scottish central bank and currency.
If Johnson is smart, he will soften this buzzing, amplified version of Project Fear with a strong devolutionary counter-offer: full Scottish control over social security, enhanced borrowing powers, closer regulatory alignment to the EU, and an immigration system that accommodates rather than actively neglects Scotland’s demographic needs. Equally, the prime minister – who remains pathologically unpopular with the Scottish electorate – would, as far as possible, avoid the media spotlight, ceding his place in the debate to a roster of more credible anti-nationalist politicians, including Gordon Brown, Ruth Davidson, and Rishi Sunak (assuming the Chancellor’s decision to end the COVID furlough scheme early hasn’t shattered his national leadership ambitions by this point).
To be clear, I’m not convinced the Tories have the strategic imagination necessary to concede ground on Home Rule or to relegate Johnson to a distant and tightly-sealed backroom – which is where he needs to be if the Union is going survive the duration of his premiership. But, in the event of a second referendum, I reckon a unionist campaign fought along these lines would stand at least a semi-decent chance of success, even with all the centrifugal forces – Brexit, English nationalism, the Conservative Party itself – currently bearing down on the UK’s constitutional structure.
It might also be worth noting that Downing Street incumbents have a habit of surviving apparently intractable political crises. When Margaret Thatcher first became prime minister in May 1979, the UK had an unemployment rate of 5.3 per cent. By the end of her first term in office, that figure had more than doubled to 11.4 per cent. In June 1983, Thatcher was re-elected with a landslide majority of 144 seats. In 2004, Tony Blair was mired in the toxic controversy of Iraq and loathed by around 60 per cent of the British public. Twelve months later, he became the only Labour leader in history to notch up three general election victories in a row. In the summer of 2019, Labour and the Conservatives were tied in the polls, with Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit Party threatening to fracture the Leave vote at Johnson’s expense. On 12 December … well, you know the rest.
The main danger for the Yes movement, eight months out from the next Holyrood poll, is complacency. The temptation to believe that a demoralised Whitehall will meekly let the Union go because that’s what Scottish people want is intense but should be resisted. At some point, the Tories will work out how to articulate a case against independence that resonates with voters concerned about the raw economics of self-government. And, when they do, public opinion might shift once again. This thing isn’t over. The horse hasn’t bolted. Nothing, in all the roaring madness of British politics, is inevitable.
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