The Scottish Government’s referral of a ‘devolution question’ on whether it had the right to hold another independence referendum was not an attempt to establish legal clarity, it was to try to create public doubt. To stoke a belief that Scotland is being denied something, to use the judgement as kindling for smouldering resentment.
This is not a way anyone sincere would try to build a new nation. It wouldn’t be the judgement of Law Lords in London that would matter to you. It would be the judgement of the people of Scotland whose faith you would have to win.
But the fact of the matter is the majority of the people of Scotland want to remain in the United Kingdom, and an even bigger majority don’t want another referendum. Those are the people who matter, and whom Nicola Sturgeon seeks not to lead but to mislead.
It has led to her arguing that the same Scotland that voted emphatically to stay in the United Kingdom is being denied a mechanism to do something that most Scots don’t want to do. To leave it.
That, she argues, makes the UK undemocratic. Then by that argument, the United States of America is undemocratic as there is no legal mechanism by which a state can leave the Union (they once fought a war over it). No mechanism for part of Spain, or France, or Germany to leave. I could go on.
But let’s imagine she had been given the right to hold a referendum. Let’s say Indyref2 does take place, as the SNP demand. As matters stand, it’s highly likely that the outcome would be very close – say 52/48 either way. What happens then?
In the event that there is a narrow ‘No’ vote, does anyone seriously think that would be the end of the matter? The Yes campaigners would take heart from, as they saw it, closing the gap. ‘One more heave’ would be the call, and we would immediately be on a conveyor belt to Indyref3. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply hasn’t been paying attention to the nationalist movement. Scotland would be in stasis, in the grip of the dreaded ‘neverendum’.
Or what if the vote went the other way, with a narrow vote to leave the UK? Would that see the matter settled, so we could all move seamlessly and joyously create a new, united nation state?
For good or ill, a vote to leave the UK would be a shock. In the immediate and short term, there would be capital flight out of the country. Financial services corporations would relocate head offices to south of the Border. Investors would shun uncertainty as a process of negotiations which would last far longer than Brexit, possibly decades, got under way.
In that circumstance, the nation would need to be firmly behind the project. If the referendum had been won by a single-digit majority, the necessary national discipline and support would not be there for the inevitable tough times ahead. Without ‘losers’ consent’, there would be years of bitterness and grievance, against a backdrop of economic turmoil. In the words of the SNP’s star economic adviser Professor Mark Blyth, it would be “Brexit times ten”.
Recent history tells us that a referendum is a better way to confirm something than to decide it. In 1979, although Scotland voted narrowly in favour of devolution it was not decisive. By 1997 the referendum confirmed the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people. The Brexit referendum on 2016 has left the country divided on Europe with polls now suggesting a majority wish we had remained in the EU.
When she first became First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon let it be known there would be no second referendum until support for independence was consistently at 60 per cent in the polls. That was a sensible position for someone who was serious about Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. But with the opinion polls resolutely refusing to move in that direction, the First Minister has shifted her stance.
After the 2014 referendum, I feared that, with the Yes vote going almost entirely to the SNP and the pro-Union vote split three ways, we would have a prolonged period of SNP rule. That has turned out to be correct. But my real fear was that the SNP administration would use that continuous period in office to build a Scotland more distinct from the rest of the UK. That a programme of reform of our public services and our economy would prepare Scotland for separation.
That fear has proved to be groundless. Nicola Sturgeon may love the trappings of government, but she clearly has no taste for the business of governing. Our education system, once the envy of the world, now slips down the international league tables. Our NHS is in crisis. Our railways – now nationalised – are not fit for purpose. Our infrastructure a disgrace. Our economy an afterthought. The public finances a mess.
If, with an apparently limitless cheque book, the Scottish Government does not have the ability to negotiate its way to building two ferries, what chance do you really think it has of negotiating a favourable deal to leave the UK?
I have many nationalist friends with whom, sadly, I will never agree on the constitution. But increasingly we agree on this: Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership is no way to build a new nation, whatever the constitution.
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife