Has the SNP blown it?
The case for an independent Scotland has totally unravelled.
The Scottish National Party, in its 15 years of governing Scotland, has often looked close to achieving its dream of independence. Now, within two years of the party’s 90th birthday, all it can see is a slow defeat ahead.
As things stand right now, the case for an independent Scotland has rarely looked weaker. External events, including Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, as well as unforced errors, from its poor management of Scotland’s public services to its hasty, ill-conceived plans for a second referendum, seem to have put independence out of reach. This is good news for those of us opposed to the breakup of the United Kingdom.
The case against independence
At the heart of the SNP’s case is that an independent Scotland could rejoin the European Union. Indeed, ever since former leader Alex Salmond persuaded the SNP to ditch its old Eurosceptic leanings and embrace the EU in 1990, the SNP has presented the EU as a much more preferable group of which to be a member than the UK. Yet the EU imposes conditions that are onerous for all would-be members – even for those with as much moral credit as Ukraine presently has.
Scotland was never likely to get an easy entrance. And now with the EU facing very large problems indeed, from a deepening energy crisis to a war on its eastern border, it will become even harder for an independent Scotland to meet its tests.
The EU places a series of demands on would-be member states, which have only got tougher over time. Albania, the Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey are all candidate countries. And they’ve been kicking their heels in the waiting room for many years. Yes, they are poorer than Scotland. And they are less well-governed and more corrupt. But they do at least have currencies and central banks.
Scotland, by contrast, has neither a currency nor a central bank of its own – and Scots, including supporters of independence, generally want to stay faithful to Sterling post-independence. Were Scotland to launch a new currency, a central bank with substantial reserves would be required to support the new nation through a period of proving itself. To add to the potential financial and economic problems, leaving the UK to join the EU would lead to a hard border between Scotland and the rest of the UK, which presently takes 60 per cent of Scottish exports, as against the 19 per cent that go to the EU.
The truth is that, at current rates of public spending, Scotland is further from ‘paying for itself’ than ever. Scotland’s fiscal deficit for 2020-21 was 22.4 per cent, at £36.3 billion – seven per cent above that of the UK as a whole and a near trebling from the 2019-20 figure of 8.6 per cent. This is largely the result of the vast public spending during Covid. At the moment, this is not a problem for the Scottish government – because Whitehall covers the deficit.
Yet just a year ago, Kate Forbes, the Scottish finance secretary, tried to assure voters that Scotland’s soaring deficit was of no importance, even in the event of independence, because deficits are at record levels all over Europe, and a seceded Scotland would cope as well as anyone else. This was a cynical claim. Had Scotland been independent when Covid hit, and had it paid a similar proportion to safeguard jobs, companies and lives, it would now be in default.
The SNP does its best to disguise the potential cost of independence. But there is little doubt it would take a relatively long time for a Scotland outside the UK to even come back to its present levels of GDP, levels of public spending and standard of living.
Another of the central elements of the nationalist offer to the Scots is the creation of a state free of nuclear weapons. That means that the base for the four nuclear-armed submarines at Faslane on the Clyde would need to be removed at a cost of many billions.
A leaked plan from the UK Ministry of Defence suggested the creation of a kind of ‘nuclear Gibraltar’, which would see a piece of territory badged as ‘British’ carved out of south-west Scotland, where it could continue housing the UK’s nuclear submarines. This was instantly stamped on by the SNP. Speaking in September last year, defence spokesman Stewart McDonald said that the removal of nuclear arms must ‘happen at pace’, since it was ‘one of the most important tasks a newly independent Scotland would face’.
Yet this commitment – repeated before the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – would mean that Scotland would be rowing strongly against NATO’s newfound determination to increase both its forces and its weaponry in Europe, including nuclear weapons, in the face of a much-elevated Russian threat.
So an independent Scotland would seek to enter the EU as a member despite lacking the fundamental elements of membership, all while insisting on removing a significant plank of the West’s capacity for nuclear deterrence, which would cost many billions and several years to locate elsewhere.
There are many more reasons to object to Scottish independence – not least the deep division in Scottish society that a change of statehood would cause. Yet all of these objections have been made and repeated for years. Nevertheless, the nationalists have won elections time and again, while the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has wholly dominated Scotland’s political scene since 2014.
The SNP in retreat
There are signs of cracks emerging in the SNP’s hegemony, however. In the 2021 Scottish parliament elections, the SNP failed to keep its absolute majority in Holyrood. It now governs with the faithful support of the Scottish Green Party, which gathered a mere 35,000 votes in the constituency votes.
A challenge to Scottish nationalism is also emerging from Scottish Labour, now led by Anas Sarwar, son of the former Glasgow Labour MP Mohammad Sarwar (until recently governor of the Punjab). One June poll by Ipsos put Sarwar slightly ahead of Sturgeon in popularity. Sarwar is young, personable and clever. In less than two years as leader, he has given what had long been a thoroughly demoralised Scottish Labour Party reason to hope that it is not being washed out on history’s tide.
Certainly, the SNP seems to have sensed that its window of opportunity for staging a second independence referendum is closing. And with the Westminster government flat-out refusing to agree to a legally binding vote, Sturgeon’s latest ruse is to hold a ‘consultative referendum’, which she says will be held on 19 October 2023. Launching the plan in June, the first minister said that, were this referendum to indicate support for independence, this would not be acted upon without the consent of the UK Supreme Court or the Westminster government. The assumption is that a majority for Scottish secession could not be resisted by the UK.
But how likely is such a majority? Not very. Indeed it has hardly looked less likely than at any point since the last referendum in 2014, when No won 55 per cent of the vote. Ipsos, which had been among the few pollsters predicting a Yes vote in recent years, now points towards a slight majority for No. Similarly, a YouGov poll in May this year reported that 55 per cent of Scots would say No.
Meanwhile, separate polls show that fewer than a third of Scots, however they might vote, actually want another referendum within the timescale outlined by Sturgeon. Many commentators view Sturgeon’s IndyRef2 plan purely as an attempt at appeasing SNP members, who are chafing at the lack of progress on independence since Sturgeon became first minister.
As Iain Macwhirter of the Herald has explained, there is very little chance of a referendum on 19 October 2023, consultative or otherwise. Put simply, the constitution is a matter reserved to Westminster – and Westminster has rejected the possibility of any kind of referendum. Outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson did so when Sturgeon’s plan was announced, and his potential successors, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, have also made clear that permission for a referendum with a real outcome would not be forthcoming. And the UK Supreme Court could still rule that a non-binding ‘test of opinion’ would itself not be legal.
With support for independence ebbing and Westminster recalcitrant, nothing on the horizon for the SNP gives rise to any optimism, of either the intellect or the will.
Over the past decade or so, the SNP has constantly held up the UK’s Conservative government, especially with Johnson at the helm, as among the chief reasons for getting out of the UK. It has treated the failures of the Tory government, and Johnson’s many personal scandals, as an indictment of the UK itself – as proof that it is a corrupt and declining polity.
But even this argument is now losing its force. Johnson has fallen, as has electoral support for the Tories in England and Wales. Far from being the nation most aggrieved with the present government, Scotland is now in tune with the rest of the UK. The unpopularity of the Tories is now a Britain-wide phenomenon – which is uncomfortable for a party like the SNP, which doesn’t like sharing Britishness, especially with the English.
The politics of grievance
When all other arguments are used up, the SNP will point to history and identity. Scotland was its own nation once. And many Scots are attached to their distinctly Scottish identity. Having lost a political centre of its own, should Scotland not now recover it – so that, as the SNP repeats, it can be governed by its own people?
This may be what identitarianism demands, but it is not what history suggests is the best policy for Scots. The loss of separate statehood with the Acts of Union in 1707 ushered in a consistent and growing improvement in the economy, an explosion of intellectual vigour and – most precious of all for ordinary Scots – lasting peace with England. The past 300-plus years have also shown that even as the politics, economies and societies of the United Kingdom have become more integrated, Scotland (as well as Northern Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Wales) have also managed to retain substantially different cultures. After 1707, Scotland kept its own laws, its own separate religion and its own education system. It does so still, though the degradation of its education system is largely the fault of the SNP government.
Indeed, normal parties appeal for votes on the basis of their success in particular spheres and with particular projects – such as economic growth, higher wages, improved education, rising standards of health, more and better housing. The SNP has just one thing it talks about constantly: independence. One reason for this is that it has no real successes it can point to. Indeed, in just about every area of public life where it has the power to affect change, it has failed badly.
Chris Deerin, the director of Edinburgh think-tank Reform Scotland, wrote recently (while reassuring readers that he ‘loathed beyond measure’ the present UK government) that the SNP’s ‘record in government since 2007 [is a] long tail of failure now dragging behind the party’. The SNP has been unable – or has refused to – engage ‘in public-service or economic reforms that might have improved the lot of ordinary Scots and their children’. Instead, Deerin argues, it has offered 15 years of ‘grievance politics, of increased centralisation and control, of leaving the powerful gears and levers of devolution largely untouched beyond the odd tokenistic dunt’.
This, from a commentator who was not wholly hostile to the SNP, is the kind of language an increasing number of Scots are using to describe the ruling party. And for good reason. Education is in semi-permanent crisis, the healthcare system is not fit for purpose and all the SNP seems capable of offering in response is anti-Westminster posturing. It is courting a crash.
If, as seems likely, the new referendum wheeze comes to nothing, it is hard to see what else the SNP can do. Nicola Sturgeon herself, no doubt tiring after eight years of party and government leadership, with no one else of her political talent with whom to share the burden, has hinted at a second career while still young enough (she is 52). Her recent sallies abroad (for little discernible reason of any relevance to her current job) may signal that she’s preparing for a big international job, where she can attempt to do global good rather than national damage to the United Kingdom.
And then what for the SNP? The future looks bleak for the once all-powerful Scottish nationalists.
John Lloyd is a journalist, contributing editor at the Financial Times and author of Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake of Scottish Independence.
Pictures by Getty.