Sturgeon snares Salmond but stumbles over independence

by Simon Heffer

On 6 May the Scots voted to give the ruling Scottish National Party administration a fourth consecutive term in office. They did this despite a recent civil war in the SNP between supporters of the present leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and her predecessor, Alex Salmond, who was recently acquitted of various charges involving alleged misbehaviour towards women. Some spectators will see in this a Lilliputian version of the fall-out between Stalin and Trotsky, though to judge from the results it will be Mr Salmond who ends up with the metaphorical ice pick in his head. For the hard core of the SNP’s support, motivated as they appear to be by a loathing of England and a far more understandable contempt for Boris Johnson, actual ability to govern has long been an irrelevance. The years of SNP rule have brought a steep decline in educational standards, with terrible consequences for the future human capital of Scotland; and Scotland now has a level of drug addiction three times that of the next worst European country, Sweden.

Above all, although Ms Sturgeon prefers to ignore this question, Scotland has no visible means of financial support. Apart from having to fund its own public services it would, if independent, also acquire a share of the British national debt to pay off – Scotland has about eight per cent of the UK’s population – and it would lose a subsidy from the United Kingdom Treasury that the Government reckons to be £15bn a year. The country’s financial services industry and two main banks, Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS, were wrecked during the 2008 crash. The price of oil, which it draws from the North Sea, has slumped and shows no prospect of recovery. Tourism – Scotland’s ability to act as a cold-weather theme park – and whisky may not be enough to sustain it in the economic shock that would come with severing the tie with England.

For good measure, if Scotland had voted for independence economists say it would have been insolvent from day one because of the crash in oil prices between the 2014 referendum and the date in 2016 when Scotland would have left the UK. And the London School of Economics has recently calculated that Scotland would suffer three times the amount of economic damage by independence than it did from Brexit: always assuming, of course, that it does end up suffering damage from Brexit, which some believe has been exaggerated for the UK economy generally.

Ms Sturgeon is now entering a stand-off with Boris Johnson about having another referendum on whether or not Scotland remains in the political union that it sought in 1707. (The English and Scottish Crowns have been united since 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England on the death of Elizabeth I; there is no suggestion at this stage of breaking that Union too, though Ms Sturgeon is widely considered to have republican sympathies). In September 2014 the first such referendum led to the Scots rejecting independence by 55 per cent to 45 per cent, following a last-minute panic by pro-Union politicians of all parties that led to the grant of yet greater autonomy to Edinburgh. It was said at the time by the SNP that this was a once in a generation opportunity to achieve independence. It now appears that, in Scotland, a generation lasts about seven years, because Ms Sturgeon claims the time has arrived for another one. The excuse she offers is that in 2014 nobody imagined Britain would shortly vote to leave the European Union – something Scots rejected by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. She tells Mr Johnson that it is “when, not if ” such a vote comes, and intends to tar him with the brush of being anti-democratic for so long as he does not agree to make such a referendum a part of British government policy.

Tempted though she might be to emulate the Catalans and call an independence referendum on her own initiative, she can only do so illegally, and has explicitly ruled out such a device. She says that if Mr Johnson refuses to grant Scotland a referendum, she will take the Government to court. What she would do if that failed is unclear: she is not used to defeat and thus becomes distinctly uncomfortable when on the back foot, as she showed when criticised over her conduct in the Salmond affair. One gets the impression that when her fall comes, it will be precipitate. Perhaps she has been studying what happened to Carles Puigdemont, former President of the government of Catalonia, who called his illegal referendum in October 2017. Despite huge efforts by the Spanish authorities to stop the referendum, 43 per cent of Catalans managed to vote, 92 per cent of them voted to leave Spain, and Sr Puigdemont immediately made a unilateral declaration of independence. The Spanish Government charged him and his close associates with rebellion, and he fled to Brussels to avoid arrest. The famed European arrest warrant, designed to ensure that anyone charged with a crime in a member state can be extradited from another state to face charges, was exercised when he visited Germany; but the Germans decided the warrant was not so universal after all, and refused to extradite him. He remains in Belgium, living in exile in, ironically, Waterloo.

The Sturgeon future of Scotland is what the SNP have long called “Scotland independent in Europe”. The slogan itself is a grotesque misrepresentation of reality, because if Scotland joined the EU, it would not be independent

The Sturgeon future of Scotland is what the SNP have long called “Scotland independent in Europe”. The slogan itself is a grotesque misrepresentation of reality, because if Scotland joined the EU, it would not be independent. It would suffer the same democratic privations and losses of sovereignty that caused the voters of England and Wales to vote to leave the EU in 2016. But would Scotland, having voted to become independent, even be allowed to join the EU? Many countries, to spite a Britain whom they now resent for having got out, exposing in the process some of the EU’s fundamental failings, would doubtless be delighted to see Scotland back in the fold as a client state. But would the Spanish? If Spain agreed to it – and Scotland could not be let in without Spain’s approval – then it would flash the green light to Catalonia to press on with its own independence campaign, leaving Spain without the slightest moral authority to stop it. And it might also raise questions in Spain, and in France, about the Basque country; and in France, about the
rumbling campaign for Breton separatism; and indeed about the very existence of Belgium, and the worsening north-south divide in Italy. Europe endorses separatism at its peril, however much it might still claim idealistically to be a “Europe of the regions”. Most nations in the EU are much younger, in constitutional terms, than the United Kingdom.

A proper pro-union campaign doesn’t appear to exist, which is why Scotland is going by default. Such a campaign would force Ms Sturgeon to answer several key questions about the country’s future: in or out of Europe, what currency would Scotland adopt, and how to settle the bill? For until these questions are properly answered the SNP will be engaging in a form of fantasy politics, as it has done ever since the 2014 campaign. Scotland has no idea whether it will be allowed in the EU. It has no idea what currency it would use were it to leave the UK. If it immediately entered the EU it would be forced to use the euro, which would massively overvalue its currency and put it on an economic trajectory similar to Greece. If it did not become an EU state but sought to use sterling – rather as some third world countries use the US dollar – it would be tied to a currency over which (by leaving) it had no political influence.

Ms Sturgeon is lucky in her opponents. The Labour Party has been torpedoed in Scotland. It barely has any representation at Westminster, so those Scots who want old-style redistributive, class-warrior socialism vote SNP. Mr Johnson, as discussed, is a totemic hate figure, who would be well advised to delegate any Conservative Party campaign for the Union to others. Douglas Ross, the level-headed Conservative leader in Scotland, went to lengths in the recent election campaign to distance himself from the UK leader.

However, a proper pro-Union campaign might well expose Ms Sturgeon’s guilty secrets and thus the vulnerability of her support. First, not all SNP voters were anti-Brexit. Second, not all SNP voters support independence: they vote SNP because their vote helps achieve the sort of socialist government the Labour party has no possibility of providing. Ms Sturgeon claims that the arrangement with the Greens she made to secure office (her party just failed to secure an overall majority at Holyrood) gives Scotland a government committed to independence; but pollsters found that many who voted Green did so for environmental and not nationalistic reasons. Therefore, although Mr Johnson is constitutionally entirely justified in denying Ms Sturgeon her referendum, it might be a gamble worth taking to give her the vote she seeks, before divisions deepen even further – and to call her bluff.

simon heffer

Simon Heffer is a historian, journalist and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham

Current Affairs

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