There’s a story about a delegation of Catalonian Nationalists coming over to Scotland at the height of the referendum campaign and despairing over the prospect of a victory for the Yes camp. This was around the start of 2014 and the group, who want Catalonia to gain independence from Spain, found surprising differences between their own situation and the campaign taking place in Scotland.
“There’s just no grassroots movement here,” was the main thrust of the concerns. The Scots independence push, they feared, was too much of a top-down campaign, driven by the SNP hierarchy. Where was the local activism needed to mobilise a mass appeal which was the only way to deliver a Yes vote later that year? Fast-forward to the day of the vote in September, and with the polls suddenly too tight to call a winner, it was clear that just such a movement had taken root in Scotland. The formidable SNP campaign machine had played its part, but it was also down to the wider efforts of the Radical Independence Campaign in the housing estates of west and central Scotland and the Greens in delivering the mass ranks of the environmental lobby in Scotland. The result may have gone against the Yes camp, but its been clear for almost two years now that the campaign for Scottish independence is more of a popular front which transcends any one political party.
So the Conservative leader Ruth Davidson may have struck a chord with her core support when she called for Ms Sturgeon to take all talk of a second referendum “off the table” during the weekend TV leaders debate. And Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie may have won rousing applause from the audience at the event when he accused the SNP leader of being “anti-democratic” over her claim that another referendum was likely while she was in office. But in truth both leaders are whistling in the wind. And there’s an element of political pantomime to it. Both know that Ms Sturgeon isn’t about ease off on the drive to leave the UK. Not now, not when support is so pronounced.
As Ms Sturgeon sees off all-comers in the goldfish bowl of Scottish politics, she may sense her time is imminent. In referendum terms, the Yes side only need to get lucky once. A weekend poll had support for independence at 47 per cent – two points higher than the level at the referendum in 2014. Now it’s certainly debatable whether polling evidence, as the First Minister has suggested, is enough to justify a second referendum. But its certainly now impossible to ignore this huge tranche of Scots who seem to believe their compatriots got it wrong two years ago – and want to leave the UK.
Whatever the arguments about the oil crash and worsening economic situation, this is what people believe. And it’s dominating Scottish politics like never before. About 85 per cent of those who voted Yes in the referendum are now backing the SNP, according to the same weekend poll for Panelbase. The Nationalists also enjoy the support of about 15 per cent of No voters who believe Nicola Sturgeon and her team of cabinet secretaries can provide Scotland with the most effective devolved government. This is significantly down on 2011 when this group accounted for about a quarter of SNP votes.
The polling expert Professor John Curtice went as far as to warn at the weekend that it is “pretty much impossible” for other parties to make progress with Yes voters still determined to effectively repeat their vote from 2014 by voting SNP.
With the exception of the pro-independence Greens, who are largely avoiding the constituency vote, it means that the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour are fighting among themselves for the pro-Union vote.
“The referendum may not have been won,” said Professor Curtice, “but it has provided the SNP with a foundation that’s very difficult for anyone else to overcome because its made the constitutional question something that’s reflected in the ballot box to a much greater extent than before.”
Of course, this tide of popular backing which has swept the SNP to unprecedented heights in Scotland could shift just as easily away from Nicola Sturgeon’s party. As the First Minister faces awkward questions over issues like her reluctance to introduce a 50p tax rate which she previously called for, or her refusal to axe the council tax despite previous pledges to do so, its easy to see how rumblings of discontent could escalate. If elections in Scotland have taught us anything over the past decade, it’s that the voting public is volatile and fluid. But the long-term trends are with the independence camp.
Perhaps the most telling point about the 2014 referendum campaign was that the younger generation were overwhelmingly in favour of independence. More than 62 per cent of voters aged 16 to 19 backed independence. The Yes side also had a majority among voters aged 20 to 24, 25 to 29 and 30 to 39. It’s only when you reach the over-50s that the pro-union majority grows. Davidson and Rennie must face this.
The Tory leader has faced some flak over the prospect of delays to the new fleet of Type 26 frigates earmarked to be built on the Clyde, but she should not be slow to point out that none of these ships, and the thousands of jobs they support, would be getting built on the Clyde if Scotland was outside the UK.
The Scotland in the Union organisation has also emerged to make the case for the country’s place in the UK and is planning a sweeping tour around the country this summer. Initiatives like this could also be provide another key platform for the pro-UK parties to take their case forward in Scotland.
Whatever side of the constitutional divide our political leaders sit, they have to realise that the referendum process changed Scotland forever. The prospect of Scottish independence is no longer an abstract concept to the 2014 generation but something real, within their grasp. The independence question is now as much part of the political furniture of Scottish politics as the NHS or education. Pro-union leaders must be ready to confront this, not shut down debate.