Leading article

Nicola Sturgeon's referendum stunt

2 July 2022

9:00 AM

2 July 2022

9:00 AM

Nicola Sturgeon presents Scotland as a country outraged by Brexit and straining at the leash of the United Kingdom. She said she wants a second referendum on 19 October next year. But she has no powers to call one and has already referred herself to the Supreme Court, which is likely to confirm that only the UK parliament can bring into being a referendum on the future of the UK. So her call for a referendum date is, to all intents and purposes, a stunt.

The SNP and their Green allies stood on pro-referendum manifestos last year and between them captured a majority of Holyrood seats. Sturgeon feels that justifies another vote. But that logic has already been rejected by the UK government, which says that now is not the time. Sturgeon’s other option is to declare that the next general election will be treated as a referendum on independence – and if they win the majority of votes, they will demand secession. This is, of course, a constitutional absurdity.

As a nation, Scotland undoubtedly has the right to self-determination – a right which Scots have so far exercised by voting to stay in the Union. Opinion on this has barely changed since 2014. While that referendum was close – 45 for leaving to 55 per cent against – the balance of opinion still favours the Union, as almost every poll of the last few years has shown. It’s true that much has changed since 2014: Brexit, partygate, inflation. But there is no significant change in Scottish public opinion. Just look at last year’s Holyrood elections, where not a single party gained or lost more than a couple of seats.

Sturgeon’s plan for an independent Scotland to join the EU will alienate her from the one-in-three Scottish nationalists who voted for Brexit: the so-called ‘double outers’ who cannot see why one would take back control from Westminster only to hand it back to Brussels. Her support for a more aggressive net-zero policy would also be difficult for the north-east of Scotland, where so much of the economy (and about 100,000 jobs) depends on North Sea oil.

If she succeeded in having an independent Scotland inside the EU, she would need to erect a hard border with England – and Northern Ireland offers a glimpse of the agony this would involve. It would be far worse in Scotland’s case, because trade with England accounts for most of the goods and services that are imported or exported. So a hard border would instantly place a crushingly expensive tariff on basic economic life. It’s a burden the SNP dares not quantify.

The Scottish government does quantify its deficit: 22 per cent of GDP at the last count. New EU members need to have a deficit of no more than 3 per cent. Closing the gap is possible only through sado-austerity, a rolling back of the state on a scale few countries have ever attempted. Then come the other questions: who would pay the pensions? And in what currency? People do vote for expensive options and take risks. Brexit showed that voters can place a premium on political control, and be prepared to accept the cost. But the SNP already has control of public services and the results have been dismal.

School spending per head is 7 per cent higher in Scotland than in England. Yet the performance of Scottish students is lower than the national average in maths and science and getting worse still. Who is holding Scotland back? The country is being let down by an abysmal government which is obsessed with independence over all else. Levels of despair surge – drug deaths are the highest in Europe, four times higher than the next country. This is the opposite of what devolution promised. How will more devolution reverse the problem?

Ms Sturgeon has an army of supporters to assuage, so she has to do her best to pretend that their date with destiny lies just around the corner. In fact, as she herself privately observed after the last referendum, it would be folly for the SNP to try again without a significant lead in the polls. A great many nationalists still think a vote next year would be premature, which is why just a third of Scots support her referendum timetable. She has promised Scots a vote they don’t want in pursuit of an independence agenda that the majority of them still oppose. It is a nonsense.

It may be tempting for Boris Johnson to call her bluff and grant her the vote – and watch the SNP discover, as Quebec’s separatists found, that a second failure is fatal to the cause. But he should not put party advantage before his duty as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Scotland, like the rest of the UK, is facing all kinds of instability: the last thing Scots need is the added drama of a referendum. The case has not been made, the majority for independence does not exist. Perhaps more than anything else, all the available evidence suggests that most Scots simply do not want another referendum. The Prime Minister should listen to them, even if Scotland’s First Minister will not.

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