A Scottish independence vote has been held off, but for how long?

The UK Supreme Court's ruling against a referendum might strengthen the resolve of those who seek to quit the union

A person holds a placard depicting Scottish actor Sean Connery during a rally outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh on Wednesday. Reuters
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Autumn in Edinburgh is a marvel. The sun sets at about 4pm, and I’m meeting friends in the medieval Old Town of Scotland’s great capital. Edinburgh is stunning in the dark – Gothic, spooky, especially when rain glistens on cobbled streets running down to the Grassmarket, a historic marketplace where public hangings once took place.

Between 1661 and 1688, about a hundred Christian religious rebels were executed here. The Old Scots word for being stubborn is “thrawn”. The rebels were so “thrawn” in refusing to change their beliefs that the Duke of Rothes said sarcastically that a particularly stubborn rebel had chosen to “glorify God in the Grassmarket”, by being hanged.

Being “thrawn” – mulish stubbornness – is part of my own character. I suspect it’s a characteristic of many of my fellow Scots and – stubbornly – many are again talking about Scottish independence. For Scottish National Party members, such as the former leader Alex Salmond, independence is “the dream that shall never die".

This month, the dream is not dead but perhaps postponed once again.

The Supreme Court (in London) ruled emphatically that the Scottish government does not have the power to hold a second independence referendum. That’s the law. No serious lawyer believes the Supreme Court could have interpreted the law in any way other than saying no to “Indyref#2”, as a second referendum is called. But – and this is the catch – parliament makes laws. And the parliament that made this particular law is the one at Westminster, in London, not the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

The UK Supreme Court in London has ruled against allowing an independence referendum in Scotland. AFP
Sunak appears to hope that being tough by saying 'no' to a referendum will end the argument. It won’t

Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, says the courts offered clarity on the issue, but she adds that she will regard the next general election (scheduled by December 2024) as a kind of referendum on independence. This is a matter of political choice, which she can of course do, even if others disagree. It is also high risk.

Back in 2014 (Indyref#1), there were broadly three reasons Scots voted against independence.

First, it would have then meant Scotland leaving the EU. Brexit killed that argument. Scots were taken out of the EU by English votes despite Scotland overwhelmingly voting to stay.

Second, the disruption caused by independence would be significant. Independence means new arrangements for currency, trade, pensions, a new border with England and other matters. But independence supporters tell me that Brexit and the chaotic performance of the Conservative governments of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have themselves been so disruptive that independence – with Scottish voters choosing the government that really matters to them – will bring greater stability in the longer term. Again, that’s debatable, but possible.

The third argument against independence could be called “50 per cent plus one”. What would happen if on such a momentous issue, voters – split roughly down the middle – settled on independence but by a very narrow margin? A split electorate would lead to difficulties in accepting the result, as we have seen with the 2016 Brexit mess six years after the vote to leave the EU.

Some insiders believe Ms Sturgeon has manoeuvred shrewdly. She has kept the idea of Indyref2 alive in theory, which her supporters want, but not achieved it in practice. And that may be good for her since the polls suggest she might lose a referendum. Moreover, the fact that a second referendum is being denied by an unpopular Conservative government solidifies SNP support and could attract other voters too.

Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, during a news conference in Edinburgh on Wednesday. Getty Images

Ms Sturgeon is fortunate in her political enemies. Ms Truss and Mr Johnson were as popular in Scotland as measles. Scottish Conservatives have described to me how they feel about Mr Johnson in words so rude that I could not repeat them in print.

So what now?

First, the blame game. SNP members say that the UK was created as a voluntary association of four nations, and there is nothing voluntary about being forced to stay in a union against your will. The UK left the EU after a referendum vote, so why – they ask – is the UK now so undemocratic that Scotland cannot try to leave in similar fashion?

Historians note that the Scottish parliament in 1707 voted itself out of existence to join Westminster. So – this argument goes – why is the Scottish parliament of 2022 being denied the right to reverse the process?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appears to hope that being tough by saying "no" to a referendum will end the argument. It won’t. Scots have plotted independence long before Mr Sunak was born. As Prime Minister, he could theoretically be creative and say he will allow a referendum but only if a super-majority (say, 55 per cent of Scots) vote for independence. Yet, that won’t work either. Brexit – the momentous constitutional change that Mr Sunak supported – passed by just 52-48 per cent.

At least nowadays Scottish martyrs are no longer executed. Instead, they complain on television and social media about the unfairness of the Westminster government. What happens next – no one can be sure. But the “thrawn” – stubborn – battle for Scottish independence will outlast Mr Sunak’s time as Prime Minister.

For some, the dream – and for others the nightmare – shall indeed never die.

Published: November 29, 2022, 2:00 PM