Speaking at last Saturday’s #indyref2020 rally in Glasgow, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon pledged that there would be another referendum on Scottish independence in 2020.
This was the first pro-independence rally to have been addressed by Sturgeon since the run-up to the 2014 referendum. But it was not the first time that she has promised another referendum.
Sturgeon first promised a second referendum immediately after losing the 2014 one. She has been promising one ever since.
In the 2017 general election campaign, for example, she initially called for a second referendum “in the autumn of 2018 or spring of 2019”, but subsequently amended the timeline to “at the end of the Brexit process”.
Two factors have combined to push Sturgeon into making a specific pledge (or prophesy) that permission to hold a second referendum will be granted by the end of 2019, and that the referendum will be held next year.
Firstly, true believers can only await the Second Coming of Christ for so long before becoming demoralised. Then they turn to heretical thoughts. Consequently, as time passes, more and followers of the cult have become more and more restless.
Recent months have seen the All Under One Banner alliance of regressive nationalism stage a series of major – but not as major as they claim – demonstrations in Scottish cities. Sturgeon has always been there “in spirit” but never in person.
There have been demands for “the Catalan option”: The SNP government in Holyrood should organise a second referendum in the absence of a Section 30 order (i.e. the Westminster Parliament giving approval to the referendum).
But this has failed to gain traction. And for the faux radicals of Scottish-populist posturing, the prospect of up to 13 years in prison suddenly made their strategy appear distinctly less attractive.
Alternatively, leading figures in the SNP have argued that a majority for the SNP in the 2021 Holyrood elections would amount to a mandate for independence, dispensing with the need for another referendum.
Attempts to make this SNP party policy were dealt with in true SNP style.
Motions for the SNP 2019 conference which backed this position were ruled out of order. Attempts to move an amendment on the same lines to another motion on independence failed when all motions about independence were kept off the agenda.
There was just the Supreme Leader’s speech. That contained everything that conference delegates needed to know.
But last Saturday’s promises of a referendum in 2020 should satisfy the restless natives, at least for the time being.
Secondly, a general election has been called and the SNP needs to work out its election strategy.
2017 did not go well for the SNP. Its vote went down from 1.5 million (2015 general election) to one million. Its number of seats fell from 56 to 35. And Tory-free Scotland suddenly had 13 Tory MPs.
Sturgeon’s calculation is that putting the issue of a second referendum centre-stage, in the broader context of opposition to Brexit, will resurrect the half a million voters lost in 2017. In a first-past-the-post election, this will result in a virtual clean sweep for the SNP.
There are obvious attractions to such a strategy.
It will divert attention away from the SNP’s record in Holyrood (which influences voting even in a Westminster election):
Scandals in the NHS, an education system in crisis, an explosion of homelessness, a decline in life expectancy, delays in major infrastructure projects, an unreliable railway network, declining standards of social care, and the highest number of drugs-related deaths in Europe.
It will also cut across the chances of a Scottish Labour revival. It will lead to national identity rather than class identity being a major determinant of voting intentions, with Unionists more likely to vote Tory and pro-independence votes going to the SNP.
The latter calculation has been marred by the decision of the Scottish Greens to stand 20 candidates, including in key SNP marginals.
A million Scottish voters backed Leave in 2016. A third of them were SNP voters. These were primarily the voters who deserted the SNP in 2017. The promise of a post-Brexit independent Scotland returning to “our European family of nations” will not help attract them back.
And for all its usual bluff and bluster, the SNP’s record on Brexit has been erratic. It flipped from total opposition to any form of Brexit to support for the “Norway model”. It likewise flipped from not supporting a second EU-referendum to becoming its foremost advocate.
Promising another referendum on independence will warm the hearts of the faithful. It may not have the same impact on the broader electorate.
Some opinion polls have shown support for Scottish independence at around 50%, compared with 45% in 2014. But other opinion polls show a decline in support for independence, and only minority support for another referendum on Scottish independence in the imminent future.
A second independence referendum also conjures up some unpleasant figures for the SNP:
A spending deficit of 7% of Scottish GDP; an annual £10 billion fiscal transfer from central government to Scotland; ten years of public spending cuts in an independent Scotland to reduce the deficit; and 60% of Scottish trade with the UK (compared with 18% with the EU).
Plus the costs of setting up a new currency (a proposal backed by 13% of the population), the cost of setting up a new central bank, and the cost of replacing the new currency by the euro (a probable condition of Scotland’s admission to the EU).
And while Sturgeon has denounced a hard Brexit ever since June of 2016, she has now refused to rule out a “hard border” between England and an independent Scotland.
The supposed rationale for a referendum and independence – Johnson in Downing Street, and Scotland out of the EU – could also easily collapse: What if the Tories do not win the general election? And what if there is no Brexit (because of a second EU-referendum)?
Sturgeon’s decision to prioritise a second referendum and independence is already adding to the existing problems faced by Scottish Labour in the general election.
There was no “Corbynite influx” into Scottish Labour after 2015. The activists who could have constituted such an influx remained in the political orbit of the SNP and pro-independence campaigns outside of the SNP.
Consequently, Scottish Labour in many parts of the country remains moribund and controlled by the right wing. This is reflected in the outcomes of selection contests for Westminster candidates: Many of them are walking reminders of why so many voters abandoned Labour in 2015.
Claims that Labour “turned the corner” in the 2017 general election are a myth. Six new Labour MPs were elected. But its overall Scottish vote increased by less than 10,000, 7,000 of which were in just one constituency. In this year’s European elections Labour’s share of the poll slumped to 9%.
Claims by Sturgeon that she simply knows for sure – because she knows everything there is to know in the universe – that a Corbyn-led government would grant a Section 30 order have already been seized on by the Tory press to portray Labour as weak on the Union.
Already rampant are headlines such as “Corbyn’s Cave-In to Sturgeon”, “Secret SNP-Lab Plot Revealed” and “We Must Stop Corbyn Gifting SNP A Fresh Chance to Break Up UK”.
Right-wing Scottish Labour candidates hostile to the relatively radical policies adopted by Labour conferences will seize on Sturgeon’s new push for independence as an excuse to wrap themselves in a Union Jack and appeal to Tory voters on the basis of Save the Union.
This will make it even more difficult for Scottish Labour to win back working-class SNP-voters.
All this underlines the vital role which the Scottish Labour left – however relatively small it may be in comparison to England – has to play in the election campaign.
Scottish Labour policy is to support a second referendum on EU membership and, unlike party policy at UK level, to support Remain (i.e. no need for a special conference to decide what Labour’s position would be).
That is the right policy, although Scottish Labour has not been particularly vociferous in promoting it.
While remaining opposed to independence for Scotland, Scottish and national Labour policy is to support the granting of a Section 30 order if there was clear support among Scottish voters for another independence referendum.
This is simple democracy.
Opposition to that policy and claims that it could cost Scottish Labour votes is a measure of just how right-wing the Scottish Labour right is. And what could cost Labour votes are its attacks on the policy, not the policy itself.
That policy is qualified by opposition to a Section 30 order in the early years of a Labour government, so that the electorate can judge the government on its record. The qualification is open to criticism. But it is secondary to the recognition of the basic principle.
Scottish Labour activists should be to the fore in pushing party policy on Brexit and Scottish independence during the campaign. At the same time they need to work to transform the election from being a battle of flags into a battle fought on the basis of class politics.
The SNP vision of a referendum tomorrow and independence the next day is based on a scenario in which the Tories win the general election and Brexit goes ahead. Once again, the SNP’s political promises presuppose, and require, major working-class defeats.
The only referendum which should be decisive in Scotland in this election is a “referendum” on the Tories record in power and the choice between the nightmare of five years of Boris Johnson in Downing Street or a Labour government committed to radical policies.