Once more unto the breach, dear friends...

13 Mar 2017

Nicola Sturgeon sounded confident on Monday when she announced she would seek permission to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence. Despite the bumpiness of the road ahead, she has a strong chance of winning: considerable support for independence in the opinion polls, personal popularity, and the resources and goodwill of her many eager supporters.

 

She is also lucky in that her Conservative opponents have effectively handed her a credible excuse to take Scotland unto the breach once again. Britain's vote to leave the EU, which Scotland did not endorse, allows Sturgeon to claim she has been 'forced into' something she has no doubt been planning since the day she became First Minister.

 

And how appropriate that the issue of independence has been given new life thanks to the EU, as Europe has always been central to the SNP's argument. No longer do we have to deal with a bunch of difficult Tory brutes down south, they said for years, for now there is a new, more democratic and more liberal club in Brussels with which Scotland can do business. Already, Sturgeon's language has implied that this second referendum will be based around this theme, Scotland’s ability to choose between a British or European future.

 

It is bizarre to think this is finally going ahead, for there has been so much talk about second referendums in the last three years, beginning the day after the result of the first one, which only a fool believed was a 'once in a generation' vote, as the SNP told us. The argument that they have never shown any respect for democracy has merit but also stubbornly refuses to acknowledge two salient facts: that the SNP will never stop fighting for what they believe in, and that referendums are temptingly easy tools for bringing about large changes without having to bother with the small, awkward questions.

 

This will be the third referendum Scotland has endured in four years. The previous one learned from the first, in that Vote Remain ran a campaign warning against the economic dangers of leaving Europe, thinking the same tactic had 'worked' in Scotland in 2014. It hadn't really, as although the independence side lost they had shredded the No lead during the campaign, changing the country and insuring independence has been ‘on the table,’ as the First Minister likes to say, ever since.

 

Vote Leave learned from the mistakes of the Yes campaign by not being too specific about the obvious economic downsides to secession. Sturgeon may want to do the same in the future, as this would help her dodge the difficult questions of falling oil revenues, the currency, and the fact that the British economic union is hugely more important to Scotland than the European one.

 

The question then is political, and you can already see it in the language. While the unionist campaign will stress the importance of the UK 'single market,' the independence side will emphasis the importance of Scotland controlling its own future, hoping that enough Scottish people will feel their ‘destiny’ has been mucked around with in recent years. Might Sturgeon even excise the 'Back' from Vote Leave's winning slogan, and go on the stump with the slogan 'Take Control?'

 

The chances of the country following her advice depend on who is feeling enthusiastic and who is feeling fatigued. Certainly the independence side has more energy, as they do not yet have what they desire and thus have always known the fight is not over. The unionist side seems more worn out, as they had believed they only needed to win once and, as the decline of Scottish Labour proved, were damaged by their victory. Their arguments, too, such as the one about Scotland's EU membership, have largely been discredited, while the 2014 Yes campaign now looks quite prescient.

 

Sturgeon, as we heard, appeared confident, but she doubtless remains incredibly cautious. Independence is what she wants, but not necessarily this way. Brexit has forced her hand, robbing her of the ability to build up support for a second vote in her own time. Holding a referendum in the middle of Britain's negotiations with the EU will be messy for both sides, and regardless, Sturgeon cannot lose this one, even if only for the sake of her career. She saw what happened to David Cameron when he lost a referendum with which he wasn't comfortable holding.

 

Sturgeon's opponents have already talked rather drearily of the 'uncertainty' that a second referendum will bring. On the contrary, it is hard to see how Scotland could be in a more uncertain position at the moment, as evidence suggests the country is split evenly on the issue of independence. Yet if the time that has passed since 2014 has taught us anything, it is that opinion polls should be shown the same respect and trust as the easy promises of a shameless populist. Anything can happen. All we can do is wait and find out.

 

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