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'Significant And Material Change': Scotland's New Referendum

15/03/2017 10:29 GMT | Updated 15/03/2017 10:29 GMT
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In politics, as in life, some opportunities are too good to miss. Nicola Sturgeon is to be congratulated on seizing the moment. On the day Parliament gave up its right to have a meaningful vote on Brexit, Sturgeon announced her plan to give the Scottish people the choice between Brexit and independence.

The backlash has been swift. Theresa May accused Sturgeon of turning politics into a 'game.' Unnamed government sources described Sturgeon's intervention as 'unpatriotic', and the Daily Mail, taking on its historic role as voice of the nation, led with the headline 'Hands off our Brexit, Nicola!'

Opinion polls show little appetite for a second independence referendum. Yet, for all that, Sturgeon is in a strong position. First, May has objected to Sturgeon's demand, she has quibbled over the timing, but crucially she has stopped short of saying no. May has no mandate to stand in the way of a Scottish referendum. May is, in a sense, an unelected Prime Minister. Even in terms of her own rhetoric, May's mandate comes from the Brexit referendum, not a general election. That is a decisive mandate in England, but no mandate at all in Scotland. Sturgeon, by contrast, was the clear winner of the Scottish Assembly election of 2016. What is more, she fought and won on a manifesto which authorised a second referendum if there was 'a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out the EU against our will.'

The weakness of May's mandate, appeared immediately. May quickly claimed that 'the majority of the Scottish people, do not want a second independence referendum.' May's statement certainly reflects the polling data. But there was something deeply incongruous about May speaking on behalf of a nation who did not elect her and reject her central policies.

The economy is May's strongest suit. Yet even here she is on shaky ground. Since 2008 the income of the average Scottish voter has fallen by 10% in real terms. Unionists who point to the strength of the British economy are up against the same problem as Remain campaigners last year. The claim that the British economy is in good shape does not resonate with peoples' daily experience of declining wages and punishing austerity. A Unionist campaign built around the strength of the economy will simply sound out of touch. Equally, the economy of the EU is doing well. Every one of the 28 member states is experiencing economic growth. Currently, EU growth is out-stripping the growth of the US. Compare this with the UK: Philip Hammond promised another five years of austerity in last week's budget, the pound is at a historic low, debt at a historic high, inflation is rising, and with the prospect of the UK crashing out of the EU on WTO terms, there has never been a better time to bet against the British economy. The economy may be the Unionist's strongest suit, and yet it is not a winning argument. It is also worth remembering that last year's Brexit vote proved that nationalism can trump economics at the ballot box.

Secondly, there are good constitutional reasons for seeking independence. Brexit will be imposed on a Scotland than voted to remain. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Scottish Executive has no right to influence Brexit, and the House of Commons has laid down its right to have a meaningful vote on the negotiations. There is a clear democratic deficit in the current constitution, and therefore a strong argument that independence is the only way to create a political settlement that is truly responsive to the will of the Scottish people.

In terms of party politics, the Union looks much less attractive than it did in 2014. At the last Scottish referendum many Scots assumed the 2015 election would end Tory rule. Today, it looks like Tory rule, and the austerity that comes with it, will be locked in for a generation. Moreover, whilst Tory rule mitigated by the EU is one thing, unconstrained Tory rule is altogether less appealing.

Turning to the future, there is no guarantee that Sturgeon will be able to take Scotland into the EU. But Scotland's exit is certain if the Union remains. Independence, then, holds out at least a glimmer of hope that Scotland has a future in the EU.

The attitude of the English may also play a role. Immediately after the 2014 Scottish Referendum, David Cameron played the English nationalist card. He argued that there was a need to review the Union to ensure that England got a good deal, stating that he wished to end the Barnett formula. Cameron's talk of respecting the traditional settlement evaporated as soon as the vote was won. What is more, the Tories fought the 2015 election on an anti-Scottish platform. Senior Tories implied that a British government which did not have majority support in England would be illegitimate. In terms of the constitution, relegating Scottish MPs to a second class was nonsense. However, the trick worked. The Conservatives won, in no small measure, because of their anti-Scottish rhetoric. Anti-Scottish feeling has grown since the Brexit vote. There are already calls on social media, echoing Trump, to 'Build a wall' to keep the Scots out. Why should Scotland stay, when the English are so lukewarm about the Union?

The current situation reflects the growth of Scottish and English nationalism. Scotland suffered from benign neglect under New Labour and open distain from the Tories. No wonder the desire for independence has grown. By and large, Brexit was a victory for English nationalism. May's determination to follow the path of hard Brexit shows that the Tories have ceased to be a party of Union. The majority in England want Brexit, and the Tory front bench are prepared to sacrifice the Union to leave the EU.