The great pretender: Nicola Sturgeon’s independence bluff

Will Boris Johnson call Nicola Sturgeon’s bluff?

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

During the Scottish leaders’ debate, Nicola Sturgeon was asked a rather awkward question: what would she say to voters who want her as First Minister, but who certainly do not want another referendum, especially at such a delicate stage for the country? ‘What are they meant to do if they want you, but don’t want independence?’ she was asked. ‘They should vote for me,’ she replied, ‘safe in the knowledge that getting through this crisis is my priority.’

It’s amazing how quickly priorities can change. Sturgeon is already talking as if every Scottish National party vote was a demand for a referendum — and as if Westminster refusing that demand would mean ‘standing in direct opposition to the will of the Scottish people’. The SNP was outraged that this week’s Queen’s Speech, setting out legislation for the next year, did not contain a bill for a second independence referendum. This apparently showed contempt for ‘the priorities of the people of Scotland’.

The great Sturgeon bluff has begun — and it’s worth examining, because it will overshadow much of British politics for the next few years. The SNP has a story to tell: about an ancient union on the point of collapse, with Scots itching for a referendum and Boris Johnson running scared of their democratic verdict. But in fact the independence movement has seen its momentum slow and its economic case collapse. Sturgeon’s battle is now not with Johnson, but with the millions of Scots who do not want independence. But there are few signs of her changing her mind.

As Sturgeon knows, her version of the story is eagerly received in England and globally. ‘Independence wins in Scotland,’ announced Italy’s La Repubblica last week. ‘The Scottish independence party of Nicola Sturgeon emerged strengthened from the elections,’ said Le Point (technically true, insofar as the SNP gained one seat). The New York Times has been bracing its readers for ‘the biggest blow to a British prime minister since Lord North lost the colonies in America’.

Against such excitement, it seems almost rude to point out that the SNP last week ended up with fewer seats than it did under Alex Salmond in 2011. No party gained or lost more than two seats either way. After spending years saying that Brexit would supercharge the case for independence, Sturgeon has instead seen opinion polls which show support slumping to where it was after the 2014 referendum. Even the arrival of the supposedly hated Johnson in No. 10 does not seem to have galvanised the SNP vote. Tory support held up, even without the formidable Ruth Davidson. The pro-independence bump seen in the autumn has fizzled out.

So this is her first test: how to present the stagnation in Scottish public opinion as unstoppable momentum towards independence? Verbal tricks are deployed. Under Holyrood’s complex electoral system, pro-Union parties won a slender majority of constituency votes but were narrowly outvoted in the regional list. This allows the SNP to talk about the ‘majority’ who want a referendum — or, more simply, to say that ‘Scots’ want a referendum. (It’s striking how quickly anyone who doesn’t want independence has their Scottishness removed.)

Step two is for Sturgeon to create a fuss about the constitution and say what a democratic outrage it would be if Westminster were to reject a demand for another referendum. But this case, too, crumbles on further inspection. The Scottish parliament’s remit was democratically decided by the 1998 Scotland Act. It has no powers to call for a referendum: if it tried to hold one anyway, the vote would be illegal. Johnson would not have to sue. Any individual Scot could launch a legal appeal to strike down any wildcat referendum. I understand that there is already money in place for a private challenge of this sort.

But all this is based on an even bigger bluff: that the SNP is ready for battle. In truth, public opinion in Scotland is nowhere near the level where nationalists think it would be safe to call another referendum. Last time, when Scots voted 55/45 to remain in the UK, it was said in nationalist circles that another vote would not be held until support for separation hit 60 per cent. It rose to just over 50 per cent in the autumn but has fallen back: the last dozen polls show an average of 44 per cent. (Sturgeon has stopped sharing the results of such polls on Twitter.) Such surveys mock the SNP’s claim that Brexit has transformed the appetite for independence.

Even in the last referendum, it was hard to make the economic case for independence. Now Sturgeon does not even try. She admitted during the campaign that she has not updated the economic argument since her 2014 manifesto. But even that blueprint was based on flawed and outdated assumptions: on almost £8 billion revenue from North Sea oil, for example. Or assuming that a breakaway Scotland would be allowed to use sterling as its currency, and that there would be no border friction with England (by far Scotland’s biggest economic partner) thanks to Britain’s EU membership at the time.

North Sea revenues have since collapsed and Britain has left the European Union. Rejoining is the SNP policy, but this would now mean tearing Scotland out of the customs union and single market of the United Kingdom — not to mention borders with England that Brussels would insist upon. Claiming such a border would create jobs (as one SNP candidate did last month) is unlikely to assuage concerns.

If Sturgeon were to fight a referendum campaign, she would not be able to dodge questions like these. She’d have to talk through her plan to dump sterling and adopt an as yet unnamed Scottish currency. A Credit Suisse report has underlined the premium that small countries always pay on their borrowing. How would an independent Scotland raise money to cover its gargantuan deficits when it can no longer draw on the UK’s pooled resources? Voters would ask: ‘Who will pay my pension? And in what currency will it be paid?’

The SNP has had seven years to think up answers to these questions, but it still has none. It instead talks in abstractions: are we really saying that Scotland is too small or too poor to be independent? Of course not. Independence is perfectly feasible, but at a cost. For example, public spending is £14,830 per head in Scotland, £1,630 higher than the UK average. The tax collected, per head, is £308 lower. No independent country could fill this gap with borrowing. It would mean austerity on a scale never attempted by David Cameron or George Osborne.

You can argue that this would be a price worth paying. But not everyone would agree. A recent poll shows half the younger nationalists would not vote for independence if it would cost them £1,000. At present, it looks like the actual bill would be a lot higher. And this is before you factor in the disruption of a Scottish currency, border controls and the uprooting of economic ties that have existed for centuries.

All such points could be hammered home in a second Project Fear campaign — if it were to come to that. But the Prime Minister has the opportunity to make sure it never does. How can he do this? No. 10 still has not decided on the strategy. He could point-blank refuse to hold a second referendum, but that would play into Sturgeon’s narrative of Scotland becoming a captive in a union with (as she puts it) ‘no democratic route’ to becoming an independent country. By keeping her guessing and saying ‘Not yet’, he reserves the right to call her bluff later.

Meanwhile a bold, positive case for the Union should be made. It has never been easier to do so. The pandemic has shown the benefits of being a member of the family of the United Kingdom: pooled resources allowed a £407 billion response, with a generous furlough scheme. An independent Scotland would no more have been able to afford this than it would have been able to bail out RBS after the last crash. Scots are now more likely to be vaccinated than people of any country in Europe — thanks to Kate Bingham and the UK vaccines taskforce. When trouble strikes, there’s power in a union.

Sturgeon will keep trying to pick fights on issues that suit her: about flags flown over buildings, about the legality of referendums etc. The smart response from No. 10 would be to avoid rising to this bait and for the UK Prime Minister to act as a UK Prime Minister — focusing on Scotland’s (many) problems while the SNP focus on the constitution. He could visit more frequently and do more to help — especially in areas where the devolved government has failed.

Drugs deaths are perhaps the most egregious example, with Scotland harder hit than anywhere else in Europe. The sheer level of addiction ought to qualify as a national emergency, yet it is treated with near insouciance by too many in Holyrood. There is no law saying that Westminster cannot help Scotland: indeed, post-Brexit powers of state aid make it easier for the UK government to do more in places like Glasgow, which has some of the worst deprivation in the developed world.

The idea of Scotland drifting inexorably away from the rest of the UK is impossible to reconcile with the many social attitudes studies showing that, if anything, the two countries are converging. There’s more difference of opinion between the south-east and south-west of England than between Scotland and England.

This makes Sturgeon’s achievement all the more remarkable: in defiance of the economic and political trends she has conjured up an image of a Scotland all geared up to a future outside of the UK. This is why she is one of the most formidable politicians not just in Britain but in Europe — and the truth is she’s up against Tories who zone out and lose interest. It takes time and effort to understand Holyrood and the politics of nationalism. No. 10 does not even have a strategy. It could well be that the greatest threat to the Union is not Scottish agitation but English indifference.

The story of British unity and shared achievement has never been properly told — but the government has, in No. 10, a wordsmith who might fancy himself as Sturgeon’s match in this regard. If he were to lose to her in a second referendum, he’d have to resign and his premiership would end in failure: no one doubts that. The question, fundamentally, is whether he cares about saving the Union as much as she cares about ending it. The way to stop a referendum is to take a lesson from the SNP, and to fight.

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