BY DYLAN JARDINE
They’ve never had it better. The Scottish nationalists appear golden in one of the most uncertain and turbulent political landscapes in many decades. With a Tory government in Westminster to blame and its unimpressive Labour “opposition” undergoing a process of internal combustion, the SNP are in an enviable position. From their comfy seats in Holyrood, they can at once govern while having Westminster as a convenient scapegoat when problems arise. This alongside their skillful ability to engage the attentions of the grassroots with effective, relatable leadership would imply yet another electoral success for the party in Scotland and it’s hard to think otherwise. But does all this mean yet another independence referendum, the party’s raison d’être, would see them triumph? Nobody can, admittedly, blame them for trying: there certainly has been a ‘substantive change in circumstances’ by way of the UK leaving the EU and their popularity with the Scottish electorate would seemingly imply a win. Though there’s good reason to think otherwise and I, for one, suspect defeat on the horizon.
Brexit has been the SNP’s Trojan horse – the single most effective weapon at their disposal for the means of justifying a second independence referendum in 2018. May’s inevitable ‘hard Brexit’ – for she risks dividing her party and infuriating large numbers of the electorate if she does anything to the contrary – is exactly the enemy Sturgeon needs to launch her campaign proper. The moment her preference for a watered-down Brexit is rejected by May, the nationalists will have their crucial impetus needed for the referendum and the debate will heat to boiling point. Sturgeon will offer an application for EU membership as an incentive for an “independent” Scotland which will surely be popular considering a significant majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU. This assumes that Scotland will leave the UK to lessen the Brexit blow – or avoid it altogether.
There are, however, a few salient obstacles to another Scottish independence referendum that put into question this assumed SNP victory. The most obvious of which being that the next referendum will lack the novelty factor of the first. Such campaigns tend to lose their momentum second time around; especially with such a short distance between the two dates. People lose interest and the statistics back this up. A recent YouGov poll found 46 percent would vote to leave the UK in the next referendum, yet the 2014 figure for the first stands at 45 percent. Such an insignificant increase illustrates voter fatigue and the SNP has clearly failed to take this properly into consideration. It’s likely, indeed, many swing-voters will regard this return of the ‘once in a generation opportunity’ with contempt and the consequences of such won’t be in the party’s favour.
But the main obstacle for the success of indyref2 is that many original ‘Yes’ voters will have shifted sides to the ‘No’ camp second time around for the same reason they first sought to leave the UK: sovereignty. Scots hungry for sovereignty who voted to leave both the UK and the EU seem unlikely to support a referendum which voices a move towards the European project – in direct opposition to their ideal of centralised decision-making. Those not keen on rule from Westminster may be even less keen on rule from Brussels. And with the criticisms of the EU fresh in their mind, the SNP may just be surprised at how they ultimately decide to vote. If Sturgeon does go onto define her campaign for IndRef2 on a move towards the EU, which will more than likely be the case, then she risks losing the loyalties of these most passionate of voters. This may well prove a significant factor in the success of such a referendum.
Money will likely play a key role in the dialogue, too. For this, the SNP are likely to fall back on the argument for the unreliability of the pound sterling in the current, post-Brexit economic climate – and they’d be right to do so. But Surgeon will find herself having to explain the alternative. And with a Scottish budget deficit of near fifteen billion amid plummeting oil prices, the path doesn’t look paved with gold. If Scotland does leave the UK and then follows this by pushing for EU membership, this will surely come with the condition of significant fiscal contraction. That involves reducing the already substantial budget deficit by a programme of austerity which would put Westminster’s Tory government to shame. No doubt this will be fudged and people will turn to their hearts over their heads, but this still presents an obstacle to indyref2 that even its smooth-operating leaders will find hard to overcome. The SNP may be golden now, but a second independence referendum may see their most embarrassing defeat yet.