Keir Starmer and the Scottish independence conundrum

24 September 2020

11:44 PM

24 September 2020

11:44 PM

In January, Sir Keir Starmer told Border Television’s Peter MacMahon that, look, of course an SNP victory in next year’s Holyrood elections would plausibly constitute a mandate for a second independence referendum. It might, indeed, be argued that the SNP have such a mandate already, there being a pro-independence majority in the current Scottish parliament, to say nothing of the next one.

Yesterday, in a series of interviews including one with Sky News’s Beth Rigby, Starmer reiterated this obvious point. There comes a moment when election results must have consequences and an SNP majority or an SNP-Green majority, next May seems an obvious time for such a moment to arise. This was not a controversial view until recently. Ruth Davidson, before she stepped down as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, allowed that a new SNP, or pro-independence, majority at Holyrood would clearly change the game all over again.

Starmer, it should be noted, does not *want* another referendum and not just because he’d rather see the SNP deprived of the parliamentary votes needed to demand one. Echoing Theresa May’s preferred line on the subject, he suggests ‘There are other priorities’ and ‘this is not the time for another divisive independence referendum in Scotland’.

One of those priorities is the urgent need, as I suggested the other day, for Labour to talk about something, anything, else. For nothing good can happen to – or for – Labour in Scotland for as long as the national question is the chief dividing line in Scottish politics.

Nevertheless, facts are stubborn buggers and if the people keep voting for the SNP and the SNP keep demanding a second plebiscite then at some point something must give. Either the people will tire of electing SNP representatives or there will have to be another referendum. As matters stand, one of these scenarios seems more probable than the other.

Even so, the case against another referendum is not as threadbare as the nationalists suggest. Enthusiasm for a referendum is shallow, not deep, and it is not yet seen as a matter of immediate necessity. It may take an effort to remember this – for so much has subsequently happened and so little of it has been very good – but it is only six years since Scotland determined its own future and chose to remain a part of the United Kingdom. That must count for something even if some of the circumstances in which that choice was made no longer apply and even if the United Kingdom Scotland is part of now is not quite the same as the United Kingdom it chose in 2014.

This is, in the end, an argument between competing truths. Yes, as the SNP argues, there has been a ‘meaningful change in circumstance’ that justifies another referendum. Thank you, Brexit, for providing that and for placing the future of the United Kingdom in fresh jeopardy. But it is also true that six or seven years does not a generation make and that, changed circumstances notwithstanding, the demand for another plebiscite does not sit well with nationalist commitments to respect the result of the first one.

Nevertheless, ‘Just Say No’ is not a long-term tactic, not least since unless support for the SNP and independence diminishes, it is one which sacrifices long-term goals to short-term expediency. Moreover, it is a tactic whose potency diminishes the longer it is used.

Politics is a question of moral force as well as of parliamentary muscle. Boris Johnson’s government has the numbers and the right to refuse a second referendum even if the SNP prevails next May but the counter-argument – that Scotland has demanded the right to choose again – has some legitimacy to it too. Keir Starmer no more has the solution to this than any other Unionist but he does at least acknowledge the problem. This may be a case of ‘saying the quiet bit out loud’ but there you have it.

The greater issue, in the end, and one to which the answer is not yet known, is whether a policy of blunt refusal will, in time, answer the question anyway. There is a gathering suspicion that it may and that it would most likely do so in ways that are unhelpful to Unionism. And yet the alternative – permitting a second referendum – is equally fraught with risk and equally intolerable. Neither the Conservative nor the Labour party can embrace a second referendum for one bloody great thwacking reason: they fear it might be lost. All of which leaves Unionism in a Micawberish position: waiting, trusting, hoping that something will turn up.

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