Indyref: it’s like déjà vu all over again

As Scotland’s First Minister took to the podium in Bute House, I took flight, literally. By the time she got down to business, I was 20,000 feet up in the air. There is a certain serenity that comes from soaring over Scotland, disconnected from telephonic communication and social media. But all good things must come to an end. By the time my flight had taxied to the gate, my inbox, Twitter account, WhatsApp, and messaging service were beeping, purring and twitching. It didn’t take long to learn that Ms Sturgeon was asking for another independence referendum. These generations, they pass so quickly…


Up until recently I would have described Ms Sturgeon as a canny politician, the epitome of the careful Scot. Like the Sunday school teacher scanning the horizon for any cloud that would foretell the coming storm and cancel the picnic, I would have argued that Ms Sturgeon would only proceed with caution. Not so long ago she set the conditions under which she would seek a second independence referendum: a manifest change in circumstances (tick one, post Brexit vote) but also, importantly, regular polling demonstrating a clear majority in favour of independence. Even allowing for a recent poll suggesting parity between the two camps, this condition is very far from tickable, and nowhere near the 60% of Scots regularly cited by the Sturgeon camp.

(Irrespective of how folks might vote in a second referendum, poll after poll has shown that there is no desire to actually hold a second independence referendum. Support for a second referendum had dipped as low as 25%).

Certain SNP colleagues have also advised caution, taking the view that this really would be the last ‘once in a generation’ referendum that could be had. Seek a referendum too soon, lose it, and there is a real prospect that the separatist movement would implode, just as it did in Quebec. It would also be the exit stage left for Ms Sturgeon, just as it was for her predecessor and for David Cameron. With no heir-apparent, it is this loss that would be most damaging of all. (The third coming of Alex Salmond anyone?)

Post-Brexit, many on both sides of the argument had expected a bounce for independence. After all, Scotland had clearly voted differently from England and Wales. However, support for both sides has remained stubbornly immobile. For every would-be vote gained because of Brexit another has been lost. Whether it be because of the greater uncertainty a second referendum would create, or concerns about SNP competence in their day job, or the collapse in the oil price, or any of the other issues that appear to be going wrong.

However, it seems that far from casting a weather eye to the horizon, Ms Sturgeon has thrown caution to the winds. At the risk of stretching the Sunday school picnic metaphor too far, it seems that too many supporters have been marched to the top of the hill, willing to picnic in the torrential rain, if it meant the chance to have another go on the Independence whirly-gig.

Perhaps the First Minister is hoping that the Prime Minister will refuse the request, so buying more time to stoke that smouldering grievance and shift those stubborn polls. I have heard some nationalists talk of 2021, after the next Holyrood election. There is little doubt that SNP brexiteers like Messers Neil and Sillars would favour this approach, not least because Scotland would find itself outside the EU. And they may well be joined by some of 400,000 SNP voters who put their ‘x’ next to Brexit.

Many a nationalist has claimed, there will never be a better time for the independence cause. Of course, the flipside is also true. The liberal EU looks far less liberal with each passing populist triumph. Who today would wager good money against Wilders in the Netherlands, Le Pen in France, Grillo in Italy? Even Chancellor Merkel’s prospects are not what they were. The European Union is changing, and not everyone will welcome those changes. Everyone talks of reform and then points in a different direction, crying ‘Forward!’

If Ms Sturgeon has her way there will be a referendum conducted with all the passion that a weary electorate can muster running alongside a series of challenging and complex Brexit negotiations. The last time this once in a generation question was posed, the people of Scotland spoke clearly. Since then the Scottish Government has lost its majority in Holyrood, come up short on education attainment and equality of access, presided over a shrinking economy and increased unemployment, failed to pay farmers their due, carried on with an unpopular named person proposal condemned by the courts, and sought to centralise every service that moves.

Perhaps the only thing that both sides can agree upon, the future isn’t what it used to be.

PS we did get some clarity today. In all the hoopla surrounding the announcement of the First Minister, something may have slipped under your radar. The chief spokesperson for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in response to a question made a statement that was simple, clear and about Scotland: an independent Scotland would have to apply to join the EU, echoing the statement of then Commission President José Manuel Barroso. If an independent Scotland wants to join the EU, it must apply afresh, there would be no UK successor status for Scotland.