Scottish independence: Even nationalists are starting to admit leaving UK would be 'hard work' – John McLellan

It was a week which was supposed to start the march towards an independence referendum in 2023 but instead was dominated by the failure of the Scottish Ambulance Service; Health Secretary Humza Yousaf agreeing people needed to “think twice” about calling 999; a frail pensioner dying after a 40-hour wait for help; and the army being called in to deal with the crisis.

Nicola Sturgeon speaks over the internet at the virtual SNP conference (Picture: Andrew O'Brien)

With Scottish government agencies snubbing the nationalised Ferguson Marine shipyard for £100m contracts to build new ferries and the First Minister reading out the wrong prepared answers to a stooge question at Holyrood, the SNP has had better weeks. But at least Sharleen Spiteri (net worth over £10m, lives in Primrose Hill) came out for independence.

Nicola Sturgeon’s rallying call at the SNP conference on Monday was full of the hype, hyperbole and bombast which characterise leaders’ conference speeches, dominated by the now customary cure-all of re-joining the EU, but her observation that Scotland is “in some ways a young democracy” was notable.

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“Our parliament is just over 20 years old,” she explained, knowing full well Scotland is part of one of the world’s oldest democracies, that Scots’ democratic will was expressed in election after election for decades before the Scottish Parliament was reconvened, and the result each time was the outright rejection of nationalism.

Keep saying democracy in Scotland only really started in 1999 and maybe people will believe it, even though few would deny the Scottish Parliament owes its recreation to the Labour victory in the 1997 general election on a Scottish manifesto with the new assembly as its centrepiece and the referendum which followed.

None of this is secret, so why say it? Advisers pore over every line in a leader’s speech before the boss sees it and then the process starts again, so not a syllable is without purpose. Its inclusion is no accident of sloppy drafting, but appears to be an attempt to track the birth of Scottish democracy only as far back as 1999, chip away at the legitimacy of the UK government and solidify in the minds of younger voters that UK democracy somehow doesn’t count.

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With an average Scottish birth-rate of 11.3 per 1,000 people in the years immediately after 2007, there will be around 240,000 new voters in the 2026 Scottish Parliament elections who were not alive when the SNP was last out of office, and a strong chance they will never have known anything other than a Conservative government in Westminster.

SNP strategists know that around 70 per cent of people aged between 16 and 35 say they will vote yes, including some 400,000 people who were too young to vote in the 2014 referendum, so they have long believed that time is on their side.

But bar one or two blips, support for independence has remained static since the so-called “buyer’s remorse” surge immediately after the 2014 referendum. An Opinium poll for Sky News last week gave Yes a 51:49 lead once don’t knows were excluded, the first pro-independence lead since April, but then both Panelbase/Sunday Times and Savanta ComRes surveys put No ahead on 52.

Progress is not being made, even with the death of approximately 400,000 predominantly No voting elderly people since 2014. Unionists have long believed the older people get the less likely they are to take a punt on something as financially uncertain and far-reaching as independence, and they appear to be vindicated by the statistics.

Something must be shifting opinions as people age, otherwise the impact of one side losing approximately 300,000 supporters and the other side gaining as many in an electorate of just under four million, a spread of about 15 per cent of voters, would be clearer.

So the SNP narrative needs to change, and this week Team Sturgeon not only set out to separate younger voters from their parents’ democratic past but to make up its own version of recent political history in which the SNP’s failures are actually the opposition’s fault.

“These parties demonstrate no sign at all of… making the changes necessary to move from opposition to government,” she said, as if the Conservative-driven Strathclyde and Smith Commissions which gave more powers to the Scottish Parliament never happened.

Nor is there any truth in the risible claim that Scotland is being deliberately impoverished to make it more dependent, as if the widening Scottish deficit between government expenditure and revenue is some dastardly plot.

And the First Minister’s pledge that her most important job just now is to support the NHS and remodel the care system, contrasts with her Finance Secretary Kate Forbes’ apparent concern that she might have to spend the £1.1bn the Scottish government will receive from the new health and social care levy (approximately £165m more than will be raised here) on, you guessed it, health and social care.

The only answer to the reasonable question about how Scotland’s finances will improve after independence, is another question: if other small EU countries do better why can’t we? The new approach seems to be acknowledging but not dwelling on problems, with Ms Sturgeon saying “nothing will fall into our laps” and her Growth Commission chair Andrew Wilson admitting “it will be hard work, it will be an effort”.

No doubt they will highlight the Institute for Government’s view this week that challenges “would not be insurmountable” while brushing aside the rider that “there would be no avoiding difficult economic choices”, but new economic advisory panel member Professor Mark Blyth has spelt it out graphically: “[The Union] has been together for over 300 years. So, if pulling apart 30 years of economic integration with Europe is going to hurt, 300 is going to hurt a lot.”

That’s not much of a sell for independence waverers starting to consider later-life security, and neither is the prospect of clutching your chest wondering if it’s OK to call an ambulance.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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