The rumours that Liz Truss will make it harder for the SNP to both obtain a legal independence referendum and to win it, don’t so much matter in their detail but in the fact that they demonstrate that Truss is not willing to play the SNP’s game.
The UK is unique in present day western democracies in facing a continual threat from separatists who only have to win a simple majority once at a referendum to gain independence. It makes it impossible to plan. It adds an element of economic risk that no one else faces. It means that for short term reasons like an unpopular Prime Minister, a 300-year-old country might face dissolution. It might survive any number of referendums, but lose just once and it loses forever.
The rumour is that the SNP will now require a 60% lead in the polls for a year to or more and then win a majority of the electorate in a referendum. Of course, Scottish nationalists are complaining that this isn’t democratic. But there is no right in western democracies to have an independence referendum. It is a simply a mistake to suppose that there is. Nowhere else in the EU or the USA does a part of country have the right to leave the whole. So, by the standards of most democracies Truss is being ultra-generous to the SNP.
Her generosity is for the following reasons. The UK has been playing a losing hand since 2014. We have made continual concessions to Scottish nationalism. We have increased the powers of the Scottish Parliament and allowed it to act almost as if it were ruling a separate country. We have seen support for Scottish independence rising and falling between about 45% and 50% which means the SNP wins every election. If you give the SNP a referendum each time it wins an election, you will be tossing a coin until one day you lose. You can say No not now, for a while, but unless you change the game, in the long run you will lose. Everything else is managing decline.
It is in my view unimaginable that if the SNP won 60-65% in a referendum, but only won 49% of the electorate that it could be prevented from achieving independence shortly thereafter. It would be like 1979 all over again, where a majority supported getting a Scottish Parliament, but lost because turnout wasn’t high enough. The winners had a grievance and nursed their wrath to keep it warm until winning in 1997. The increase in the vote during the years between was in part because of the grievance.
But this is to mistake the power of the Truss gambit. Since 2014 Yes has not come close to 60%. It will take a big shift in public opinion for Yes to reach 60% for a year or more. Even then the SNP would be gambling if it went for a referendum, because winning a plurality of the electorate might not be possible even if it won 60%.
In 2014 Yes would have needed 2,141,696 to win 50% of the electorate which is more than No got (2,001,926) meaning Yes would have had to win 59% of the vote. But that was an exceptionally high turnout.
It was always said before that the SNP would need 60% of the polls to be reasonably sure of winning, because the status quo has an inbuilt advantage, but this means that the SNP now would now have to reflect that even 60% in the polls might not be enough. It might have to wait until 70%.
The reason for this is that 50% of the electorate is an extremely high bar. The SNP won 1,454,436 votes in the 2015 General Election nearly 49.97% of the vote, but that isn’t even close to half the electorate. If that becomes the task in Sturgeon’s de facto referendum/General Election, then she might as well roll a rock up a hill like Sisyphus.
But it is perfectly reasonable to argue that those who don’t bother to vote want independence less than the packet of fags they walk to the corner shop to buy. So why not count them with those who oppose it?
Under the present circumstances where support for and against independence is about even and that hasn’t changed at all since 2014, the Truss gambit make independence practically impossible. We would never get to the referendum, because the SNP would never dare ask for it. But this means that we would never get to the grievance of the SNP winning say 59% but not getting independence.
I always favoured changing the law to ban referendums on independence, but arguably the Truss gambit is cleverer. It basically does ban referendums, but allows them if an unlikely condition is met.
Scotland of course can go down the rebellious route. The Scottish Parliament can make a unilateral declaration of independence, but it won’t because it knows that it doesn’t have the support for this with the voters. A no deal Scexit unrecognised by anyone with no cooperation and beginning immediately does not have close to majority support in Scotland. Even a majority of Scottish nationalists would reject it. Make it clear that this is what rebellion gets you and we will retreat from Derby once again.
A lot of Scottish voters may not much like the UK, but we rely on it in times of trouble to pay our wages in a pandemic or our fuel bills in an economic crisis. Many of us would love to be independent, but only if we have a safety net which is made in Britain.
We have a standard of living, which is better than 90% of the world’s population and we are not going to risk that for independence even if we like the idea in theory.
So, both sides have a limited room for manoeuvre. Scottish nationalists can play at being rebellious in their Jacobite outfits, but we are too prosperous to rebel and too careful to risk ending up much poorer after independence.
The British Government recognises the problem that we all think of the UK as four countries held together by “the union” like the Treaty of Rome. It would like very much to tell everyone that we are one country like France, but try convincing England fans when they just beat Germany. So instead, we gain twenty years by giving the SNP a hurdle it can’t jump over. After twenty years we might say that the SNP now needs 70% for a year. Twenty years after that we can rule out independence referendums and say actually, we are only one country not four.
The main point however of making independence impossible to achieve is that independence supporters will have to judge the SNP on its domestic record rather than on a dream that is not going to happen. If you make independence impossible, you make the SNP pointless, because it is a single-issue party.
It puts us back to the days before 2014 when Scots voted Labour if they wanted a more left-wing UK Government and didn’t vote SNP on the whole because it had no chance of forming a UK government.
It doesn’t much matter if you agree or disagree with the Truss gambit. What it signals is that Scottish independence is not happening and the British Government will do this, or that or something else entirely to stop it. This changes the calculation. It takes away the idea that Scotland could leave the UK with consent and with cooperation and with goodwill. But without these, independence loses much of its attraction for reasonable Scots who might otherwise be tempted.
Once Sturgeon sees that she will not lead the tribe to the promised land, she will leave the task to someone less famous and less talented at which point it will be amusing to watch Scottish nationalist marches dwindle. I might even shed a tear as I watch Scottish nationalist hopes fade.