The Scottish independence movement has got a second wind

Neither of the arguments that convinced Scots to vote against the 2014 referendum are valid any more

Scottish independence supporters march through Glasgow in May during an All Under One Banner march. PA Wire
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Scotland in 2014 seems like another country. Just eight years ago, Scots voted not to break up the United Kingdom, voting against independence. Now this week the UK Supreme Court will decide whether the Scottish government can hold another independence referendum because the 2014 vote already seems like ancient history.

Back then David Cameron was Britain’s Conservative prime minister. The UK economy had recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. Edinburgh’s financial services companies had recovered against a stable political background. The Edinburgh festival lit up the summer with a great blast of world culture.

That year, I travelled all across Scotland listening to informative – and heated – debates about independence.

In Shetland, which is half way to Norway, some residents suggested that the Scottish government in Edinburgh was as remote from their lives as the Westminster government in London. In the Scottish borders, nearest to England, some worried about independence bringing new border controls with a new bureaucracy, which would be bad for trade and tourism. In the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, there were concerns about investment, services and the oil industry. Where would the money come from? What currency would an independent Scotland have? Could Scotland be excluded from joining the EU? Could Scotland keep the pound – and if so, how "independent" would it be, since the Bank of England would call the shots?

By the time of the vote in September 2014, it seemed that two arguments swayed the doubters. The first was that question of EU membership. Mr Cameron insisted that if Scotland broke away, it would no longer be part of the EU and would not easily secure membership to the bloc. The Spanish government, in particular, might veto it, fearing that if Scotland were to "break away" from the UK then Catalonia would be encouraged to break away from Madrid.

SNP leaders are hoping the UK Supreme Court will decide that legally they can hold another independence referendum

The second argument that I heard over and over was that independence would be so disruptive that it simply was not worth the trouble. Better, in other words, to stay with the devil you know rather than leap into uncertainty.

But listening to the debates at the Scottish National Party conference in Aberdeen in the past few days, those two key arguments seem to have disappeared.

The EU argument was destroyed by the Brexit vote in 2016. Many Scots, including some of my own circle of friends, were persuaded in 2014 that the only way to stay in the EU was to stay in the UK, yet exactly the opposite proved to be the case. Every one of Scotland’s 32 electoral districts voted against Brexit and to stay in the EU. England voted to Leave – and so Scotland, as some put it, was "forced out of the European Union against our will".

The second argument for staying in the UK – that it would create all kinds of chaos and so wasn’t worth the trouble – also had merit in 2014. But now? The past month in Westminster has been one of acute political and economic chaos. Since Mr Cameron resigned as a result of losing the Brexit referendum, we have had three rapidly revolving and failed prime ministers in six years.

The current incumbent, Liz Truss, has caused more disruption in a month than any prime minister anyone can remember. She tanked the pound, disrupted the bond markets and split the Conservative party into the most extraordinary faction fighting most British commentators have ever seen. One commentator memorably observed that the party conference was like a "self-devouring carnival of cannibals".

Meanwhile, Scottish National Party leaders are hoping the Supreme Court will decide that legally they can hold another independence referendum. The chaos in Westminster has resurrected the biggest question of all: what does it mean for Scots to "be British" any more? Does it mean anything at all? True, historical ties with England, Wales and Northern Ireland remain. Our geography is unchanged. British culture and the English language remain a kind of glue.

But Scots have not voted for a Conservative government since 1955. The ability of Ms Truss to speak for Scotland when she does not even command respect across her own political party means that King Charles III faces the uncomfortable spectacle of the disuniting of the United Kingdom during his monarchy. An independent Scotland, however, would probably keep the monarch as head of state just as some British Commonwealth countries – Australia, Canada and others – do. Yet disruption is the story of our times.

When I have asked Scottish Conservatives about what might save the Union, publicly some speak of the UK in some way being "better together". Privately, a number of them have told me that the only thing which could prevent Scottish independence would be a Labour government. That in itself is quite an indictment of Mr Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and now Ms Truss – four Conservative prime ministers in a row who may speak for England but whose voices somehow have no resonance for many Scots.

The Supreme Court verdict may yet prove to be a gamechanger.

Published: October 11, 2022, 3:14 PM