If we want to keep Scotland in the UK, we are going to have to fight for it

John Rentoul
Getty

The first law of politics is to know your opponents’ strengths, so those of us who want Scotland to stay part of the UK need to recognise that Nicola Sturgeon is possibly the best politician in the UK at the moment.

If we care about the union, we should be afraid. Legally, there is nothing Sturgeon can do. Boris Johnson wrote her a letter this week and said: “I cannot agree to any request for a transfer of power that would lead to further independence referendums.”

Constitutionally, that is that. The power to hold a referendum lies with the UK government. David Cameron agreed to hold one in 2014. Alex Salmond, who was first minister of Scotland at the time, said it was a once in a generation event. So did Sturgeon, his deputy, and Ian Blackford, who is now leader of Scottish National Party MPs in the House of Commons.

But they say leaving the EU changes all that and they want another go. They have a moral case, and the SNP keeps winning elections – having made its position on a second referendum clear, even if Sturgeon is astute enough to say she realises not everyone who votes SNP wants independence.

So far, that moral case is weak. Together, the SNP and the Scottish Green Party, which also supports independence, won a majority in the Scottish parliament in 2016. But that was before the EU referendum.

Now the SNP claims a “mandate” for a new independence referendum from winning 80 per cent of Scottish seats in the Commons last month. This is bogus. The election was to elect seats to the UK parliament, and the SNP won 7 per cent of them. You don’t win mandates for policies in parts of the UK, or else Labour would now be installing free broadband in London, having won two thirds of the seats there.

In any case, the voting system exaggerates the SNP’s success in Scotland, where it won 45 per cent of the votes. Nationalists are familiar with that figure, and ought to know well that it is not enough to win a referendum. (Yes, but Johnson won a majority in parliament with less, is the predictable and irrelevant riposte in any online discussion: Johnson won with 44 per cent under the rules for general elections; the Yes campaign lost with 45 per cent under the rules for referendums.)

Opinion polls suggest that the people of Scotland are opposed to another independence referendum at the moment. But opinion is finely balanced. A YouGov poll in September found 45 per cent – that number again! – think there should be a referendum in the next five years, while 44 per cent think there should not.

And it seems all too likely that pro-referendum parties will win a majority in the Scottish parliament elections next year. Indeed, it is even possible that the Scottish Labour Party might support the idea, on the typically Corbynite reasoning that it wants a referendum on independence so that it can campaign against it.

That is the danger, for people like me who want to keep our country together. Sturgeon cannot force Johnson to grant her a referendum. She is too wise to try to organise an unofficial referendum, which wouldn’t work because Spain, with its eye on Catalonia, says Scotland could rejoin the EU only “if Westminster agrees” to independence.

But the problem with refusing to allow the SNP to hold another referendum is that it allows Sturgeon the easy argument of process – “arrogant Westminster denies Scottish people a voice” – instead of the hard argument for independence. I fear that the longer this goes on, the more support for independence will grow.

Which is unfortunate, because the case for independence is weaker than ever. It cannot now be denied that the immediate effect of breaking away will be to make Scotland poorer. The gap between public spending and taxes raised in Scotland is bigger than in the rest of the UK, and the difference is covered because our national taxes are shared on the socialist principle of need.

Sturgeon also has to argue not just to leave the UK but to rejoin the EU. That should be straightforward, but it cannot be guaranteed, and it means a hard border with England and Northern Ireland.

What is more, we have learned from Brexit that leaving a union is not simple. If Sturgeon and Johnson cannot agree upon terms, should there be a no-deal exit with Scotland trading on World Trade Organisation terms? Should there be yet another referendum, which the SNP supported on Brexit, to sign off the terms of separation?

All this while the SNP hasn’t even resolved the currency question. It couldn’t answer it in 2014 and six years later, still has no better answer than keeping the pound – a currency controlled by another country. If you’re going to keep the pound, the Queen and the BBC, but reject the UK’s money and put up a trade barrier at the border, what is the point of independence?

Why should I care, as supporters of independence rudely ask online. Well, I am Scottish and it is my country too. Even if I weren’t Scottish, it would be my country too. Forgive the personal history, but it’s illustrative: although I spent most of my childhood in India, I went to nursery and primary school in Scotland. My mother is Scottish and my surname originates in Perthshire.

This is my country and it would break my heart to split it up. I accept the final decision should be made only by the people who live in Scotland, but that doesn’t give them the right to brush aside and insult their fellow citizens elsewhere in the country.

In any case, the final decision was made by the people who live in Scotland, in 2014 – and it should need a very good reason to reopen that question. I don’t accept that Brexit is that reason; and I don’t think the Scottish people do, either.

But those of us who believe in this country need to fight harder than ever to persuade our fellow citizens who live in Scotland that they should stay. The trouble is, we are up against Nicola Sturgeon – and she’s good.

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