Andrew Whitaker: Scottish independence take two

Nicola Sturgeon has 'effectively kept the SNP's guard up' on possibility of a second independence ballot. Picture: Getty

Nicola Sturgeon has 'effectively kept the SNP's guard up' on possibility of a second independence ballot. Picture: Getty

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COULD a Tory General Election win and an SNP landslide provoke a second referendum, asks Andrew Whitaker.

The SNP leadership made it plain during the referendum campaign that the independence vote was a “once in a generation” event, and even appeared to suggest it was a once-in-lifetime thing, with no chance of a rematch.

Although there were somewhat ambiguous hints the weekend after the referendum from Alex Salmond that Scotland could achieve independence by stealth, the party’s big hitters have, for the most part, boxed clever on the topic.

Nicola Sturgeon has very effectively kept the party’s guard up, by stating that a second referendum would be held only if and when the majority of Scots wanted such a vote.

The carefully crafted line – that a fresh independence vote is not in the gift of the SNP leadership, it’s for Scotland to “decide” – has given the SNP room to breathe in the five months-plus since its referendum defeat. So given the dominance of the SNP and the very real prospect that it could come close to sweeping the board in May’s General Election and then go on to become the first party to win a third term at Holyrood in 2016, are there then circumstances in which a second referendum might be possible?

Of course, Ms Sturgeon is far too astute to suggest that overwhelming majorities for the SNP at Holyrood and in the Scottish section of the General Election would mean a mandate for independence.

Likewise Mr Salmond, who is almost certain to win a return to the Commons and once again emerge as the SNP’s dominant figure at Westminster, has done more than any Nationalist politician to see off the tendency within the party that has been out of favour for decades – a position associated with figures such as the late Margo MacDonald, Jim Sillars and Winnie Ewing.

Just as at the 2011 Holyrood election, when the SNP campaigned on a “re-elect a competent SNP government” platform, Ms Sturgeon has appealed to Scots who “don’t normally vote SNP” to lend her party their votes in May to boost Scotland influence in the Commons and deliver more powers for Holyrood.

But could various scenarios play out whereby the SNP overwhelmingly wins the election in Scotland in May, as in 2011, on a platform of being a “strong voice that stands up for Scotland”, but of which the main consequence is a vote on independence?

There’s every chance the SNP could take between 30 and 40 seats at Westminster on 7 May, with the Tories wiped out and Labour and the Lib Dems left with massively depleted Scottish representation in the Commons.

What then if David Cameron were to remain in Downing Street with a majority of any kind, but with no MPs in Scotland, which would be represented almost completely by Nationalists at Westminster?

Such an outcome would precipitate a constitutional crisis of sorts and be the first time a Nationalist party had won a Westminster election in a constituent part of the UK since Sinn Fein won the 1918 election in Ireland – prior to it seceding from the UK with the creation of the “Irish Free State”.

Imagine then a second-term Tory government with a programme of welfare cuts, along with policies already announced such as a plan to effectively outlaw public sector strikes and workfare for young people – policies that would affect Scotland despite the lack of a mandate for Mr Cameron north of the Border.

With the Tories’ plan to hold a referendum on European Union withdrawal, there would also be the prospect of Scotland being dragged out of the EU against its will and it’s hard to imagine Mr Cameron agreeing to the SNP’s already stated demand for a Scottish veto on the nation’s own status in Europe.

Ms Sturgeon will know that the SNP faces a choice at its annual conference in late 2015 about whether to include a pledge for a second referendum in its manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood election.

Any ambiguity would dominate the 2016 election campaign, with the SNP under fire for refusing to state one way or another its intention on holding an independence vote, handing Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy an open goal and, who knows, a possible lifeline for his party.

The First Minister would not have too much difficulty convincing her party that “circumstances had changed” since the talk of a “once in a generation” independence vote, with Mr Cameron ruling over what could be a Tory-MP free zone and an SNP-dominated Scotland about to be hit by ultra-austerity from Westminster.

Of course, the SNP would then have to win the 2016 election and even with Labour taking a drubbing in Scotland this May, it’s possible the party under Jim Murphy’s leadership could make a limited recovery and deprive the Nationalists of an outright majority at the Holyrood election next year and block a second referendum by teaming up with the other Unionist parties.

However, voting overwhelmingly for the SNP is something that many people now just appear to do in the same way as they voted New Labour in the late 1990s until the mid-2000s and for the Tories in the 1980s.

Such is the current dominance of the SNP, that the Nationalists are in with a chance of successfully styling themselves as the “party of Scotland”, with a populist style that could establish a political hegemony not dissimilar to that of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – two centre-right parties that have dominated politics in the Irish Republic for almost a century.

Another enduring political hegemony involving a populist-style nationalist party, that has often used social democratic or leftist language, is that of the Peronist movement in Argentina, one which has been in and out of power for much of the past five decades based largely around the legacy of the country’s former president Juan Peron and his wife Eva (Evita).

But whatever differences or similarities there are with such parties and the nationalist movement here in Scotland, it may well be that the SNP dominance is now such a fact of political life in Scotland that a second referendum is coming one way or another.

Of course, it’s completely possible that even with massive SNP gains at Westminster that the scenarios of a Tory victory will not play out and that Labour will in fact be the biggest party – which is still a highly possible outcome.

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