To lose one union is a misfortune. To lose two is criminally careless
The timing was perfect. As rumours abounded that the prime minister was poised to trigger Article 50 within days of the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill passing, Nicola Sturgeon stood up to declare there was “clear and sustained evidence” that warranted a second independence referendum.
It is nonsense to suggest that Sturgeon’s hand has been forced: Scottish independence is her party’s raison d’etre. The Scottish First Minister has clearly been aching for this moment since the EU referendum. Theresa May’s Brexit intransigence has made her argument a whole lot easier though. Had the prime minister taken a different approach, one less influenced by the Tory right, Sturgeon would have found her move harder to justify.
However much May tries to stonewall - neither allowing a referendum nor refusing one - the assumption must be that within the next few years Scotland will hold another plebiscite. There may be little logic in the “will of the people” argument Sturgeon propagates, it is not one against which Conservatives can coherently argue. They have used it shamelessly themselves.
If there is a majority at Holyrood, there will be a referendum. And it will be one that the Scottish Nationalists are forcing. While 2014’s referendum accepted the political legitimacy of the UK government, with all but three of Scotland’s Westminster seats, the nationalists hold the moral legitimacy.
Better Together has become an empty slogan
Any poll will be remarkably different to 2014’s. Labour was still a dominant party then, its leader seen as a credible challenger at the next general election. The SNP now has a base of 45% to work upon and polls show that, while Scotland does not want another referendum, were there to be one the result would be close.
A referendum before 2019 is unlikely so Sturgeon will be arguing not just to leave the United Kingdom, but to reapply for EU membership. However, it is difficult to see what the anti-independence argument becomes. How can unionists argue for stability when Britain, by leaving the European single market, is negotiating to leave behind its biggest trading partner? Better Together has become an empty slogan.
Without Labour, the fate of the country may come down to the popular Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, and the cost of oil.
The press coverage of Sturgeon’s gauntlet obscured not only Leanne Wood’s call for a Welsh referendum in the event of Scottish independence, but also a call for a “border poll” from Sinn Féin, flushed with recent electoral momentum at Stormont.
At first glance, the intervention seems ill-fated: currently only one in five of those north of the border want to see a reunified Ireland; there is little impetus and only a plurality for reunification in the Republic, whose greatest fear is the negative impact of Brexit upon their economy. For the moment, there is little Irish opportunity in England’s danger.
European Union membership softened the nationalist polars of Ireland and Britain. The normalisation of politics has contributed to the lack of demand for a united Ireland. Yet Brexit is putting the agreement that brought that normalcy in jeopardy. There may be a consensus that there will be no return to the hard borders of the past but leaving the EU will stoke sectarian tensions between already divided communities.
Brexit could well see the collapse of power-sharing and the Good Friday Agreement. Already low-level sectarian violence is a factor of everyday life in the north. There might not be a return to the troubled past but that does not mean crisis has been averted.
It is easy to forget now how much time first John Major, then Tony Blair put into securing a ceasefire and a lasting agreement. May will be too consumed with Brexit negotiations to act in a similar fashion and her Ulster Secretary, James Brokenshire, has neither the gravitas of a Douglas Hurd, the star power of a Mo Mowlam, nor the influence of a Peter Mandelson.
Moreover, the reunification question for Northern Ireland is fundamentally different from Scotland’s. An expensive divorce and a bad Brexit deal (or no deal) could hurt unionists in Scotland but equally it could be warning that separation is never easy. Ulster faces no such threat: they would be joining a country whose EU membership is secure.
So far the growing Catholic demographic has not shifted opinion, but that might change among more pro-European younger voters from all communities forced out of the EU by mainland England.
If David Cameron precipitated this chaos, his successor is doing everything possible to make matters worse
Brexiters have cited post-referendum economic instability as the dog that did not bark in the night. Unlike the great detective, they have made their pronouncements with less data to theorise. The further political uncertainty caused by IndyRef2, plus further discord in Belfast, might begin see their complacency unravel.
When Labour peers reluctantly backed down and allowed the Article 50 bill to pass without amendments, they not only demonstrated the second chamber's democratic impotence but UK's iniquitous constitutional structure that is allowing one entity to ride roughshod over others. In itself, this is a convincing argument for separation.
There is an irony here. It has been said before but it is worth repeating: it is the Conservative and Unionist Party that is doing this. May’s warm words about her affection for the union, as she stood on the doorstep of Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, must now seem cruelly hollow outside England.
There is an element within the Tory party whose dislike of all things European comes before their supposed desire to hold the country together. The prime minister is weakly not confronting them. If David Cameron precipitated this chaos, his successor is doing everything possible to make matters worse.
A degree of compromise might not have stopped Sturgeon or Sinn Féin but it would have ensured their pronouncements carried less weight. More worryingly, this serene, domineering attitude is not confined to right-wing politicians but can be seen in the voters they represent.
The phrase Little Englanders might have more resonance in future.
About the author
Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.
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