The prospect of a second independence referendum will come to a head over the coming weeks as Scotland’s party conference season gets under way. Nicola Sturgeon is widely expected to set out her next steps when the SNP gathers in Aberdeen in a few weeks’ time. As the UK hurtles towards a “hard Brexit” outside the EU’s lucrative single market, with the knock-on cost to jobs, growth and free movement of goods and people, Nationalists increasingly sense their time is coming. Even Tony Blair met with a warm response from Ms Sturgeon last week when he suggested the case for independence is now more credible.
But is it? The landscape of Scottish politics has changed dramatically over the past two-and-a-half years, leaving the pro-independence and pro-union campaigns with tough questions to answer.
A number of factors bode well for the Nationalist campaign. The most obvious change has been the Brexit result and Ms Sturgeon is on strong ground here. The SNP made it clear going into the Holyrood election last May – which returned a Nationalist majority (including Greens)- that the prospect of Scotland being “dragged out of EU against its will” could prompt a push for a quickfire referendum on independence. When 62 per cent of Scots voted to remain, but saw the weight of votes south of the Border swing the result in favour of Leave, Nationalists were already agitating.
Perhaps it’s easy to understand their anger, as they see Scotland being pushed down the road of fundamental social, economic and constitutional change it didn’t vote for. It’s exactly the kind of democratic deficit which sparked the rise of the home rule movement in the 1980s.
Scotland votes one way, but finds itself heading down a different path dictated by the outcome south of the Border.
The demise of Labour in Scotland can only play into the hands of a future Yes campaign for a 2018 vote.
Defeat to the Tories at the Holyrood election last year was bad enough for Kezia Dugdale’s party, which found itself deposed as the main opposition party in Scotland.
Another painful day is looming for Labour at the ballot box in this May’s council election. Labour was at the heart of the pro-union campaign last time round, with Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown playing pivotal roles in delivering a No vote. Its diminishing clout in Scottish politics can only help the Yes camp.
It also begs the question: Who will lead a future No campaign?
Ruth Davidson may be a frontrunner. People like the “cut of her jib”, she talks straight and has transformed her party’s fortunes in Scotland. She is now a political star on the UK stage.
But has the political landscape changed so much that a majority in Scotland is ready to coalesce behind a campaign headed by a Tory? The polls have also changed dramatically in favour of the Yes camp from the start of the campaign last time round. A small majority persists in favour of the union, but with some bookmakers now making a Yes vote odds on, it’s clear that opinion is now split down the middle.
The grassroots activism which emerged in the final months of the referendum campaign, spearheaded by groups like the Radical Independence Campaign, which helped drive the Yes side to within touching distance of victory, has also not gone away. But there are substantial new problems for the Yes campaign to confront which could fatally undermine the independence dream. The economic meltdown which Scotland has suffered since 2014 when the oil price began to slide shows little sign of abating.
Stagnant growth – while UK GDP prospers – rising unemployment and a burgeoning trade deficit paint a gloomy economic picture north of the border. It’s hardly the kind of backdrop to persuade voters to take the leap into such a major constitutional change.
This may already be happening with Brexit anyway, but the emotional ties which stem from a 300-year-old union in Britain are likely to outweigh the altogether more tenuous political links to Brussels. If the next referendum is framed as a straight choice between being part of the UK or the EU, that won’t play well for the Yes camp. Just look at recent figures showing that UK trade is four times as valuable to Scotland as the rest of the EU. That’s if we even get into the EU after independence.
Scotland currently has a spending deficit of £15 billion. At 9.5 per cent of GDP, this is three times higher than strict EU rules allow. And let’s not forget how the EU troika treats smaller peripheral members – like Portugal and Greece – when their economies struggle. If Westminster austerity feels bad, ask folk in Athens about the crippling impact of Brussels-driven austerity.
The oil price crash poses a greater dilemma for the credibility of the pro-independence case. Nationalists will face a torrid time having to explain some of their more outlandish claims last time round about the value and longevity of the North Sea. Oil revenues briefly fell into the red recently as production levels plummeted and the price remained stubbornly low. It hardly seems to tally with former energy minister Fergus Ewing’s 2013 claim that oil would last until the end of the century. Current production levels suggest it will be on its last legs within a decade, with firms like Shell stepping up their decommissioning plans.
And whereas the SNP’s case for independence last time was built on the success they made of running devolved Scotland, this time around they face real problems on the domestic front. Once a world-leading education nation, pupils in Scotland are now falling down international league tables and behind their English peers. Barely a week goes by without more gloomy news on the NHS over excessive waits and staffing problems. And transport minister Humza Yousaf has faced calls for his head over the performance of Dutch train operator Abellio.
So the arguments have changed and any campaign is unlikely to be a simple re-run of 2014. The outcome will likely be down to which side can seize this changed political landscape as their own.