Our writer Martin Mullaney argues that the Scottish independence dream lives on, despite what it might look like from an outside perspective.
In 2014, the first, and thus far only, Scottish independence referendum was held. I was ten years old, though quick to remind anyone who would listen that I would be eleven in October, and for the first time in my life, politics seemed important. How could it seem otherwise? An issue of a lifetime (quite literally, if some figures were and are to be believed) was decided that September.
Nowadays, though my parents’ bright blue ‘Yes’ badges are coated in a layer of dust, they still sit proudly in the living room, as if waiting to be worn again. The campaign for independence, as evidenced by the continued success of the SNP, is still very much alive.
To an outside observer, though, it may seem that a death blow was dealt in November, when the UK Supreme Court held that the Scottish government does not have the power to hold a referendum on the question of independence, consultative or not, without the consent of Westminster.
This, however, would be the wrong conclusion. As shown by the increase in support for independence in the wake of the Court’s decision, Nicola Sturgeon and her allies won a victory of a kind nonetheless.
Setting aside some of the more pernicious intricacies of the situation, like the specific statutory provisions that decided the case or the composition of the bench, what many Scottish people see is a distant English ruling body refusing to allow the democratically elected devolved government of Scotland to fulfil its mandate. Not just that, they see the Scottish government being told that it cannot even ask the people of the nation what they think ought to be done. Viewed like this, it is easy to see why support for independence is on the rise.
Some, then, have wondered if Scottish politics could move to a bipolar system of coalitions, on unionist and one nationalist. This seems unlikely, though.
While it is true that scores of Scots let their votes live and die by the independence question, many others clearly view the issue as secondary. For an illustration of this, look no further than the 2019 General Election, in which the downfall of Labour’s vote share benefitted the SNP more than the Conservatives, despite the latter being a fellow unionist party.
Clearly then, people are not voting for other parties on the simple basis of maintaining the union. Thus, the idea of a coalition between parties like Labour and the Tories, who starkly disagree not only on innumerable policy issues but on basic political philosophy as well, for the sole reason that they both support the union, an issue not even at the forefront of countless voters’ minds, is ludicrous.
It’s no surprise that the UK government refuses to give its consent to a referendum. To do so would enter them into a costly war of public opinion with the SNP, a party known for its extraordinarily proficient campaigning, which if current polls are accurate, they are most likely going to lose. This is true especially, it must be noted, if more and more instances arise of Westminster ostensibly suppressing the will of Holyrood, such as recently, when Sunak’s government suggested using never-before-employed powers under section 35 of the Scotland Act, to prevent the much-contested Gender Recognition Bill from receiving Royal Assent.
Despite their pushback and contentions and threats, however, the matter of a second independence referendum, perhaps even a successful one, seems more and more like a question not of if but of when.