BY EFFIE DEANS
If there were a Scottish independence referendum tomorrow who would win? I genuinely have no idea. I don’t think anyone does. You might as well toss a coin. But let’s ask a different question. If you asked 1000 Scottish nationalists who would win an independence referendum, 999 or more would answer that their side would win. If you asked 1000 Pro UK people the same question there would be far less certainty and confidence. This is the essence of our problem.
There are no Scottish nationalist writers who think they will lose. Even when they were 25-30 points behind in the years leading up to the referendum in 2014, I never came across a single SNP supporter or commentator who was anything other than optimistic. Instead, they kept telling me that independence was inevitable. Even when they lost in 2014, they expressed no sense of pessimism. From that moment they kept telling me that they would have another go and when they had their chance they would win.
I cannot see into other people’s minds. People can express confidence and optimism when inside they are full of doubt, but I believe that Scottish nationalists are genuine in their confidence. It is this that makes them formidable opponents.
The Pro UK side was overly confident when it granted Alex Salmond an independence referendum. David Cameron thought he would win easily and gave Salmond everything he wanted. David Cameron thought he would win the EU referendum easily too. We don’t hear much from David Cameron anymore.
The Pro UK campaign won decisively in 2014, but not overwhelmingly. It is a lot to lose by 10%, but it is not hopeless for the loser and so we all simply continued the campaign. If the gap had been 20% the issue would have been closed. Since then, the SNP with around 45% of the vote wins all the seats, but 45% is not enough to win a referendum.
But even though the Pro UK argument tends to lead opinion polls on independence our side has become ever more pessimistic. It only takes the least little set back or Sturgeon being on TV every day for people like Alex Massie to tell us that we are doomed. When things get better, he repents and starts attacking the SNP, but the damage is done. Nationalist commentators never write like this. Even if the goal is far away, they tell their supporters that they are making steady progress towards it. So too we have “Pro UK” voices telling us that if there were a referendum tomorrow then the SNP would win it. Our opponents would never write this, because they know that it would damage their argument.
Mr Tomkins is likable, able, knowledgeable and intelligent. He has written some great Pro UK articles, but who does he think he is helping with his prediction? It merely helps the SNP’s optimism and increases the tendency towards Pro UK pessimism.
There won’t be an independence vote tomorrow, for which reason it is easy to say which way you would vote, because there are no consequences. It was the reality of the moment of choice in 2014 that gave us the result we got. There was a huge turnout and lots of people who in theory supported independence in practice voted No. Scottish nationalist confidence did not actually stand up to the test of putting an X in a box.
We can’t know what the result of a hypothetical independence referendum would be, because we have no idea when or if it might happen. Would Sturgeon still be leading, if not who would be her replacement? What would the question be? A Remain/Leave question gets a very different answer. What would be the circumstances in the world? Would there be war, pandemic, economic crisis or some other event we cannot predict now? What would be the state of the EU and the UK’s relationship to it? Which party would be in Government at Westminster and who would be leading it? All of these issues would play a part and more. So, predicting the result is in all honesty like trying to predict who will win a match between Rangers and Celtic ten years from now. It is neither intelligent nor wise to suppose that you know the answer.
The reason the referendum was granted to the SNP is that Cameron felt certain that he would win it. It is for this very reason that the SNP will not get another go any time soon. The loss of Scotland is an existential threat to the UK and the odds of it being lost in a referendum are about 50/50. No one is going to risk their country on a coin toss. If polls were once more showing a Pro UK lead of 30% then a second referendum might happen, otherwise the SNP will have to wait a generation and by that stage saying “No” might have become a political tradition such as applies in most other countries which do not allow referendums on secession.
The SNP’s best chance of a second referendum is that the loss of Northern Ireland demoralises the British Government to the extent that it prefers to kick out the Celtic fringes and become instead the English Government. But polls show overwhelming support in Northern Ireland for staying in the UK. Alternatively, if support for independence reached the 65-70% level along with mass demonstrations Catalonia style plus civil disobedience then I think enough English voters would decide that Scotland was not worth the trouble. But we are nowhere near that. Polling on independence is about equal and demonstrations are merely small bands of Jacobites in woad and fancy dress. One side leads for a while in the polls then the other. So long as that remains the case the British Government will be under no real pressure, because the SNP is elected by a minority of the electorate and a minority does not win you independence.
The difference between victory and defeat in Ukraine at the moment is morale. The average Russian solider doesn’t want to be there. The average Ukrainian is defending the country he loves. Morale isn’t enough and armies historically have sometimes been overconfident. But morale is crucial in any battle including a political one.
The Pro UK side has great arguments. The kind of things that settle general elections are all in our favour. The economic argument is decisive. Scotland initially at least would certainly be poorer if it voted for independence. It would start life outside of the EU and having destroyed the UK, it would be using someone else’s currency without permission or else planning to create its own currency and then perhaps join the Euro. It would face at least a regulatory border hindering trade with its greatest trade partner. It would have to find a way to replace the money that at present it receives from the British Treasury. There is no obvious replacement unless a secret gold mine exists under Ben Nevis.
The UK has a better historical record than most and is living up to that historical record in its aid to Ukraine. The world is very uncertain, with new threats emerging do we really want to respond to these by partitioning the island on which we live, dividing people whose only real difference is an accent?
There is a great positive argument for the UK. We are fortunate to live in a genuine democracy with a high standard of living and a set of common values that are the same from the south of England to the north of Scotland. We are willing to share our wealth with each other because we have shared the same country for centuries.
We have all of the arguments that we need. What we lack is the optimism to make them. Far too many nominally Pro UK commentators spend too much time with Scottish nationalists. It’s as if they have gone up the Congo and like Mr Kurtz have gone native. Mr Tomkins would be wise to wear his pith helmet lest he catch too much sun.
While Scottish nationalists have kept their optimism since 2014, they have lost their argument. It is much harder now for Scotland to become independent than it was in 2014. If Scotland joined the EU while England stayed out there would be a greater chasm between them than at any time since the Middle Ages. Only Remainers cannot see that this is decisive for the argument. The only thing that prevents long-term SNP defeat is Pro UK defeatism.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.