Brian Wilson: Welcome to Scotland’s neverendum

Party leaders Jim Murphy, Ruth Davidson, Nicola Sturgeon and Willie Rennie at the STV debate this week. Picture: Getty

Party leaders Jim Murphy, Ruth Davidson, Nicola Sturgeon and Willie Rennie at the STV debate this week. Picture: Getty

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The endless SNP repetition of the same independence debate means other issues are neglected, writes Brian Wilson

TELEVISED debates normally shed more tedium than light. But for anyone who takes even a slightly long-term view of the prospects for Scottish society, there was a genuinely illuminating moment in this week’s exchanges.

It came when Bernard Ponsonby of STV put Nicola Sturgeon on the spot about whether another referendum on independence will feature in next year’s SNP manifesto for the Holyrood elections.

One of the Nationalists’ favourite tricks in these events is to shout “yes or no” at anyone who does not immediately assent to complex questions being reduced to the level of a parlour game. On this occasion, however, Ms Sturgeon’s own equivocation was final, and much more revealing.

The failure to answer “no” was merely confirmation that all the assurances from herself and her predecessor about last September’s vote being a “once in a generation” event were not worth the breath they were so glibly spoken with. Like EU membership and the price of oil, it was just another falsehood to be moved on from as quickly as possible. So no surprises there.

But if she didn’t say no, she certainly sniffed the danger of saying “yes”. So what we are left with is a qualified formula which amounts to “yes, if we think we can get away with it”. In other words, the question will be decided entirely according to the electoral interests of the SNP.

By the following evening, this had been sophisticated by Ms Sturgeon’s spin doctors into “a triple lock”. There would need to be a “material change” which justified another referendum; a majority at Holyrood in favour of having one and then a vote in support of it before independence was achieved.

The observant will notice that while this is indeed a “triple-lock” on independence, it is only a very flimsy single-lock in response to the question Ponsonby actually asked – will the SNP manifesto include the promise/threat of another referendum? For that to happen, all that is needed is for the SNP themselves to declare a “material change”.

At this point, Ms Sturgeon’s claim that the forthcoming general election “is not about another referendum” becomes entirely disingenuous. Because, of course, if they win a bus-load of seats, this will immediately be proclaimed as the “material change” required, so that the decision about whether to propose one will become a matter entirely for the SNP’s own internal calculations.

That critical decision will be taken less than a year from now and just 18 months after the “once in a generation” event, on the basis of what polls and focus groups are telling them then. The question asked of itself by the SNP will certainly not be: “Is this good or bad for Scotland?” Rather, it will be: “Can we win another overall majority at Holyrood with this in the manifesto?”

The question of whether Scotland is plunged into another few years of constitutional conflict and deepening societal division may well depend on the answer they come up with to that question. If they win, proceed and adopt the same timetable as on the last occasion, it would put those of us who are still around on course for another referendum in 2019.

By that time, Scotland would have been polarised along the lines dictated by referendums for almost a decade. The same arguments would be rehearsed and nothing currently suggests that any of them would have moved in favour of independence, regardless of electoral success. There is still a big difference between the 42 per cent on a 50 per cent turnout on which they won a Holyrood majority and the 50 per cent plus one required in a referendum.

At this point, Quebec begins to look like an uncannily accurate guide to what we are being offered and might well end up with. The first referendum on independence there went 60-40 against the separatists. They held electoral supremacy in Quebec thereafter but it took them 15 years to risk another referendum which they lost by the narrowest of margins and against all expectations.

It was only last year, with decisive electoral rejection of the Nationalists when they proposed a third referendum, the spell was finally broken. So Quebec lived nearly 40 years with exactly the single-issue source of political division that is now in grave danger of becoming the norm in Scotland. Along the way, it suffered severe economic damage as well deep and destructive hostility between rival camps, with which Scotland is growing all too familiar.

There is now another element in this dangerous mix. David Cameron and Ed Miliband have both ruled out agreeing to another referendum during the lifetime of the next parliament. They have both quoted the “once in a generation” pledges by Sturgeon and Salmond. It is a perfectly honourable and logical position to take, against the background of these pledges and wider accountability for the country’s economic and political stability.

But, of course, it also sets the scene for another potential level of conflict and division. Are we to have a referendum on the right to have a referendum? Is there any limit to the potential for dividing Scotland within itself on the basis of a question which, according to a survey this week, Scots regard as their 19th highest priority out of a list of 23? But that does not mean the agenda cannot be manipulated by those for whom it will always be number one out of a list of one.

The SNP’s clear intention of holding a second referendum as soon as they can get away with it will have been quietly noted in many quarters, not least those in which investment decisions are taken. There will be no big announcements, because it is well-known that threats and retribution follow. Just a quiet hedging of bets by any sector of the economy which depends on being part of the UK.

For the majority of the population who do not wish to be dragged into a neverendum of Quebec proportions, there is only one way to stop that process in its tracks – which is, quite simply, by not rewarding those dedicated to promoting it. Only then might the 18 higher priorities of the Scottish electorate start to get the attention they deserve instead of being trampled on by the constitutional obsession.

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