What failed in the Scottish referendum may now work for nationalists, writes Scott Macnab
The reconstitution of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 followed years of agitation from a wide spectrum of the country’s political leaders, civic life and grassroots pressure.
It was a long, often tortuous process, but at its root lay a basic democratic deficit which consumed political discourse north of the Border for a generation: Vote Labour, Get Tory. The Campaign for a Scottish Assembly sprung into life immediately after the first Thatcher regime won power in 1979 and a decade later emerged the Scottish Constitutional Convention which proved the driving force behind the Scottish devolution settlement. Now as the UK teeters on the brink of leaving the EU, could we be poised for another democratic chasm emerging between Scotland and the rest of the UK?
A series of polls suggest that the Leave campaign have moved ahead and, crucially, it seems to have the momentum at this crucial stage of the campaign. Not so in Scotland, of course, with every measure of opinion north of the Border suggesting that Scots want to stay in. The concerns over immigration, and the subsequent pressures on public services, which have driven so much of the support for Leave south of the Border, are nowhere near the same level in Scotland. But this is almost besides the point. What matters is the outcome it produces and this may drive another wedge between Scotland and the UK.
It is now becoming increasingly clear that a quickfire second independence referendum won’t be called by the SNP government in Scotland regardless of the outcome. Nicola Sturgeon knows the support simply isn’t there at the moment. Most surveys indicate support remains at roughly the 45 per cent it was at the time of the independence referendum two years ago. The crash in the North Sea oil industry and the widening economic gap with the rest of the UK, as well as the loss of the SNP’s Holyrood majority, have left a sense that the direction of the independence movement is perhaps beginning to drift. A Brexit vote, against the wishes of Scots, may just revive that sense of democratic deficit which drove the home rule movement in the 1980s. Nationalists are likely to use it as a much needed springboard for their summer independence campaign to win over undecided voters.
When John Major warned last week that a Brexit vote would lead to the break-up of the UK, he was careful to acknowledge it wouldn’t come from a quickfire referendum. Major was in Downing Street for much of the 1990s when the public pressure for Scots to have a greater say in their own affairs built to an irresistible crescendo. The next push for independence then is likely to be a “war of attrition” over the medium to longer term and the drawbacks, real or perceived, of being outside the EU will be highlighted and exploited by the SNP seeking to highlight this sense of grievance bestowed on Scots against their will. If prices do rise as a result of a fall in the value of the pound, if inward investment falls or trade figures suddenly don’t look so rosy, expect a torrent of senior Nationalists to exclaim “injustice” at every turn. The endless hammering home of the point is likely to register with voters north of the Border.
One obvious example where Scotland faces a likely economic impact is in its iconic whisky trade. As part of the EU, Scotch enjoys access to a range of global markets through a number of free trade agreements which Brussels has agreed with the rest of the world.
The Scotch Whisky Association has already warned there would be “significant commercial effect” on the industry’s prospects in many areas in the event of the UK leaving the EU. This could include excise duties rising and firms trying to sell into lucrative far east markets facing higher tariffs – or even being excluded from them completely. And the impact would be on a “large scale”, the SWA warned in a recent paper it published on the issue, with existing trade agreements currently covering almost 60 per cent of the UK’s overall trade and this poised to rise to 88 per cent. New deals will be done, of course, but they could take years and may not be on the same terms the EU currently enjoys.
The shadow of the Scottish referendum has hung heavy over this campaign on EU membership. The damage Labour suffered during the Scottish referendum campaign over its role in the Better Together campaign, and sharing a platform with the “toxic” Conservatives, continues to linger. It has meant Tory infighting has dominated the campaign and Labour’s traditional support base appears to have switched to Leave, amid concerns that the party is simply “out of touch” on key issues like immigration.
The SNP has been odds with the scaremongering approach from the UK Government from the start with David Cameron and George Osborne spearheading a barrage of relentless attacks on the Remain camp. The prospect of World War Three in the event of Brexit, raised by the Prime Minister, was perhaps the nadir, but there have been a string of other claims of economic meltdown and the effect on pensions and the NHS which have struggled to cut through with voters.
Of course, there has been some wild scaremongering on the part of the Leave camp as well but this has perhaps just fed into the sense of disaffection among others which has helped the Brexiteers.
This “Project Fear” approach was something which both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon warned against from the start. They pointed to the fact that this tactic resulted in a lead of anywhere between 30 and 40 points for the pro-union side at the start of the three-year long Scottish campaign shrinking to just 10 points by time of the referendum.
The Remain camp’s lead was marginal at best at the start of this referendum campaign. Eight weeks of doom-mongering has left Britain on the verge of EU exit and the independence movement in Scotland anticipating a surprise new chapter.