STEPHEN GLOVER: Battle of Scotland will make Brexit look genteel

STEPHEN GLOVER: This battle over Scottish independence will make Brexit look genteel

No sooner has this nation emerged from the ructions and divisions of Brexit than it seems likely to enter a period of political controversy that will be even more bitter and disruptive.

We face the prospect — appalling to millions of people, including me — that the country of which we are citizens could cease to exist within a very short space of time, unless the Prime Minister demonstrates gifts of statesmanship we have so far only glimpsed.

The Scottish National Party has declared that if it wins a majority of seats in May’s Scottish Parliamentary elections — which polls suggest is highly probable — it will unilaterally call a second referendum on independence.

It has no legal right to do this, but it would raucously, and to some minds persuasively, insist it had a democratic mandate. 

Nicola Sturgeon yesterday described Boris Johnson as cowardly and undemocratic for continuing to oppose a referendum

All recent opinion polls in Scotland indicate a pro-independence majority, though by varying margins.

Confronted by the threat of a wildcat referendum that apparently commands democratic support in Scotland, what should Boris Johnson do? 

The Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, yesterday described him as cowardly and undemocratic for continuing to oppose a referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are more popular than ever, in no small part thanks to her seemingly efficient handling of the pandemic in Scotland

In the first instance, it is obvious that the UK Government won’t, and shouldn’t, agree to Ms Sturgeon’s go-it-alone plebiscite. It would be constitutionally illegitimate. There was a vote on the issue in 2014, which all parties agreed would be the last for a generation.

But I suggest that if Nicola Sturgeon is being unrealistic in believing she can steamroller the British Government into accepting another referendum now, it is equally far-fetched to suppose that the matter can be deferred until 2055, as Mr Johnson recently implied.

There will one day have to be another vote because denying the Scottish people a choice over a long period of time would serve to stoke already strong pro-independence sentiment north of the border.

But the Government shouldn’t agree to one in the near future on Ms Sturgeon’s terms, for the simple reason that she would very likely win it. 

She and the SNP are more popular than ever, in no small part thanks to her seemingly efficient handling of the pandemic in Scotland.

Moreover, she repeats ad nauseam that only 38 per cent of the turnout in Scotland voted for Brexit, and so the Scots should not have been dragged out of the EU against their will. 

This is not a contemptible argument. It carries force in many minds.

Another referendum in the foreseeable future would plainly be an extremely rash policy for defenders of the Union. 

The best hope of preventing the break-up of Britain lies in the potentially benign effects of the passage of time. 

Time will probably show that Brexit isn’t the catastrophe Ms Sturgeon and the SNP have prophesied. Time may very possibly take the political shine off the First Minister, as she finds herself locked in a nasty legal battle with her predecessor, Alex Salmond, who accuses her of misleading the Scottish Parliament — a claim she strongly denies.

And time will allow Mr Johnson to build up an anti-independence coalition involving major Scottish Labour figures such as former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. 

At present, almost no one in Scotland is making a powerful public argument for the Union.

This should be partly emotional — what a great and successful partnership we have had since 1707 — and partly economic. In 2019-20, public spending per head in Scotland was 12.4 per cent above the UK average, though Scottish revenue per capita was 2.5 per cent below.

That said, I would caution against making too much of the economic arguments. 

Didn’t Brexit teach us that many people voted to leave the EU even though they feared it might make them poorer? People’s hearts can sometimes count more than their wallets.

Time, it must also be said, will one day lead to the departure of Mr Johnson from No 10, whereupon he might be replaced by a Tory leader more congenial to the Scots — most of whom can’t bear Boris — or by Labour’s Keir Starmer, who doesn’t get their goat in quite the same way.

Of course, it may be that a lapse of time won’t be sufficient to keep Scotland part of the United Kingdom, but it is nonetheless essential if there is to be any prospect of that happening.

So Mr Johnson must baldly announce that the Government won’t take part in Nicola Sturgeon’s rogue referendum. 

She can hardly argue convincingly that it would have any validity if the Unionists won’t join in.

The UK Government should also avoid getting embroiled in a court battle, which it might lose, about the legitimacy of the process. 

And it goes without saying that it should eschew the strong-arm tactics employed by the Spanish government towards politicians who conducted an illicit plebiscite in Catalonia in 2017. That would only fuel resentment.

One thing Westminster should not do is to offer Scotland even more devolutionary powers by way of appeasement. 

One of Labour’s architects of the Scottish Parliament, George Robertson, predicted that devolution would ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. In fact, it has put a rocket under the independence movement.

The transfer of further powers to Edinburgh, giving Scotland full home rule, would only hasten the route to independence, and further weaken arguments in favour of the Union.

Can Scottish nationalism be defeated? Some argue that its ultimate triumph is inevitable. 

All recent opinion polls in Scotland indicate a pro-independence majority, though by varying margins (Pictured: The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood)

They say the Union with Scotland was a product of the Empire, and once the Empire dissolved the Scots were bound to reassert a separate national identity.

They could be right. But few outcomes are inevitable in politics. 

There will have to be a second referendum — not now, on Nicola Sturgeon’s terms, but at a moment of the UK Government’s choosing, when her political star has waned, Covid is an unpleasant memory, and post-Brexit Britain is on the path to economic prosperity.

The battle for the Union will make disputes over Brexit seem polite and genteel. 

We are heading for a tumultuous few years. This is by far Boris Johnson’s greatest challenge — to keep the country of which he is Prime Minister together in one piece.

Sturgeon taunts ‘frightened’ Johnson and says she will call vote after elections in May

By Claire Ellicott Political Correspondent

Nicola Sturgeon goaded Boris Johnson over the Union yesterday saying she will hold an advisory referendum on independence if her party wins in May.

Scotland’s first minister accused the Prime Minister of being ‘frightened of democracy’ and insisted the poll would go ahead regardless of whether Westminster consented to it.

‘I want to have a legal referendum, that’s what I’m going to seek the authority of the Scottish people for in May,’ she told BBC1’s Andrew Marr show. 

‘And if they give me that authority that’s what I intend to do: to have a legal referendum to give people the right to choose.

‘That’s democracy. It’s not about what I want or what Boris Johnson wants.’

This method was used by Catalonia in 2017 to argue that it should be independent of Spain, but it attracted a low turnout and was declared unconstitutional. 

Several independence leaders were later jailed for their parts in the vote. 

Polls yesterday suggested another Scottish referendum could end up with a 52-48 victory for independence. 

They are in keeping with a series of surveys showing nationalist support growing amid dissatisfaction with Westminster’s handling of the pandemic.

Mr Johnson argues that the last poll in 2014 was described by then SNP leader Alex Salmond as a ‘once in a generation’ question. 

However, Scottish nationalists say that Brexit, which Scotland opposed, changed the narrative and requires another referendum.

Their party is expected to enjoy a clean sweep of seats at local elections in May. 

Asked about the prospect of another referendum yesterday, Miss Sturgeon said of the PM: ‘He’s frightened of democracy. 

The polls now show that a majority of people in Scotland now want independence.’

The Sunday Times yesterday published the results of opinion polls in the four nations showing voters expect Scotland to leave the UK.

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