Leaders: Answer independence referendum questions

The country is a much more divisive place after last year's vote. Picture: Ian Georgeson
The country is a much more divisive place after last year's vote. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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A YEAR ago, Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom. The result of the independence referendum was decisive. But although the country backed the status quo, Scotland is now a very different place.

Change in Scotland has come rapidly. Having spent most it its existence as a political also-ran, the SNP now dominates public life; First Minister Nicola Sturgeon enjoys remarkable approval ratings of more than 70 per cent while the party now holds 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats.

Scotland is no longer divided politically along party lines but on constitutional ones

Polls suggest that the nationalists are in no danger of losing momentum any time soon. The SNP is predicted to return as many as 79 of Holy­rood’s 129 MSPs next year. Had there been no regional top up list through which some members are elected by proportional representation, all other parties would face total wipeout.

And polls suggest that support for independence is increasing, albeit at a slow pace.

Even the most optimistic supporter of the SNP would not have dared to predict the party’s soaring success in the aftermath of referendum defeat for the Yes campaign.

Scotland, for the time being, is no longer divided politically along party lines but on constitutional ones. Those who supported Scottish independence – including a substantial number of people who had traditionally voted Labour – have fallen into line behind the SNP, for the most part. Meanwhile those who backed Scotland remaining in the UK are split between Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats.

Given these circumstances, it is difficult to see how the SNP’s opponents might begin to chip away at their lead. It is possible, of course, that the political balance will gradually settle back into something that we might previously have considered “normal”, but SNP dominance in Scotland appears likely to endure.

We discovered a year ago that, when independence was on offer, more Scots than opinion polls had ever suggested actually wanted it. For a very long time, support for independence had appeared stalled under 30 per cent. When it became a possibility, many more were tempted.

Those who remain convinced that Scotland should break away from the United Kingdom are, understandably, excited by those recent polls showing a majority now in favour of Yes.

But they should be cautious. A couple of polls do not provide conclusive evidence that enough Scots have changed their minds to earn victory for the Yes campaign in a second referendum.

Shortly before last September’s vote, a poll emerged suggesting Yes would win, while Alex Salmond – who had commissioned his own pollsters – was convinced victory was his.

In the end, cautious Scots were unconvinced. The case for independence had not been made.

The Yes campaign failed to provide convincing answers on key issues such as currency and membership of the European Union and that remains the case today.

And then there is the price of oil. Had we voted Yes last year, the fall in the price per barrel would have made for the rockiest of starts. Would an independent Scotland have made it through without suffering severe damage to public services? We’ll never know.

Nicola Sturgeon has said that a second referendum will happen when the Scottish people want it. This is a response which gives her some breathing room. But the truth is that a second referendum should only take place when the Yes campaign can give substantial answers to the questions which, quite legitimately, concern Scots.

The Scotland Bill, a direct result of the referendum, presents new challenges and opportunities for our politicians. That’s the next step, and we have yet to see whether it is effective, or not.

What is clear is that we are on a journey through uncharted territory and we should be prepared for surprises along the way.

Our destination, however, remains unclear.

The limits of ‘hope over fear’ euphoria

WHILE the new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, was giving his acceptance speech yesterday, opponents issued statements in response to his resounding victory.

On behalf of the SNP, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon offered congratulations and said she hoped that he would work with her in “a progressive alliance against Tory austerity”.

The Conservative Party was less chummy. ­Under Corbyn’s leadership, the Tories said, Labour was now “a serious risk to our nation’s security, our economy’s security and your family’s ­security”.

Despite the different responses, both the SNP and the Conservatives will be pleased with yesterday’s result. Both parties judge that a Corbyn Labour Party, lurching to the left, is not electable and will allow them to dominate the centre ground of politics.

Indeed, Sturgeon followed her message of congratulations with some deft political point scoring. The reality, she said, was that at a time when the country needed a strong opposition to the Tory government, Corbyn was the new leader of a deeply and bitterly divided party.

There was a ring of truth to Sturgeon’s prediction that if Labour could not swiftly show that it was capable of winning the next UK general election that many more Scots would conclude that independence was the only answer.

The Tory response was, perhaps, melodramatic, but it suggested that the controversies which have followed Corbyn – associations with terror groups and anti-Semites – are not going to go away any time soon, not if the Conservatives can help it.

The motivation of supporters who carried Corbyn to a conclusive victory is redolent of the “hope over fear” sentiment that sustained the Yes campaign in last year’s referendum. In both instances, a combination of frustration with traditional politics and faith that a new approach – however vaguely described – might improve lives managed to convince a substantial number of people to offer their support.

We understand those frustrations, but Corbyn faces many challenges if he is to turn the enthusiasm of his supporters into victory for his party.

Huge support within his party will not necessarily translate into huge support among voters.