“TYPICAL Michael,” said a senior Downing Street insider with a wry smile. He was referring to the dancefloor sensation that is Michael Gove, Boris’s Cabinet Office gofer and point-man on Scotland, following his emollient remark that Indyref2 would happen if Scotland really, really wanted it.
Typical because it was Gove appearing to concede something when he conceded nothing; an audition perhaps for his hope of succeeding Dominic Raab as foreign secretary later on in the year.
The urbane, wily Scot said with regard to holding a second independence referendum: “The principle that the people of Scotland, in the right circumstances, can ask that question again is there.”
He added: “If it is the case there is clearly a settled will in favour of a referendum, then one will occur.”
But the words “in the right circumstances”, “clearly” and “settled will” are open to interpretation – most significantly Whitehall’s, given that is where, by law, the constitutional power lies.
A few days later, it was the turn of Gove’s less sprightly Cabinet colleague, Alister “Union” Jack, to give the impression of narrowing down the context of the circumstances of a second vote on Scotland’s future but once again it was all open to interpretation. Jack explained how public support for staging Indyref2 would have to be at 60 per cent – for a “reasonably long period” – for the UK Government to sanction it.
This was not a throwaway remark from the Scottish Secretary. He knows full well that, since the 2014 vote, support for independence has never reached 60%. The highest it has achieved is 53%, in August 2015 (taking the don’t-knows into account).
From June 2020 to January 2021, there were 20 polls that placed Yes ahead but the highest proportion backing independence, again taking into account the don’t-knows, was 52%, on just a single occasion.
However, in the last 18 snapshots, Yes has been ahead in only one; of course, in those months the Nationalists have, understandably, not been quite so effervescent about psephology.
Now, some might point out the Yes camp gets nearer to the 60% threshold if the don’t-knows are taken out of the equation. But while the media often makes this omission to create a black and white Yes/No headline, it is misleading as the don’t-knows and how they would vote in Indyref2 could well determine whether Scotland became independent or not.
No doubt, the state of the Union and what lies ahead in the next 18 months will be a topic of conversation over dinner with HMQ this weekend when the PM is expected to be on his annual trip to Balmoral.
Senior Whitehall figures have again made it abundantly clear that, despite the emollient, non-muscular unionist tones coming out of the Cabinet room regarding Scotland, Boris has “absolutely no intention” of allowing another divisive constitutional vote on its future while he sits in No 10.
It has also been softly suggested another reason Boris will not concede a second independence poll is that the Queen doesn’t want to see the UK broken up on her watch, however long that continues. Charles and William doubtless feel the same.
Sturgeon has expressed indignation at Jack “making up constitutional rules as he goes along” and maintains her argument that democracy demands that a winning proposition be implemented.
The FM will be hoping the fight against the pandemic allows her an attempt, via a court if need be, to have another crack at an independence vote by the end of 2023.
In two weeks’ time, she will give her keynote speech at the annual SNP conference, when she’ll throw the usual red meat to her party’s fundamentalists. There may well be a Covid-related caveat about timing but a political Rubicon has already been crossed, given Sturgeon has pledged her Government, now with its Green-flecked super-majority, will hold Indyref2 whatever Boris does or doesn’t do.
Indeed, it seems from the SNP leader’s perspective the alliance has one primary purpose: to provide ammunition in her constitutional argument with Johnson. She insisted the deal made it “harder and indeed impossible on any democratic basis” for the Tory Government to dismiss her demands for Indyref2. The mandate, she insisted this week, was “undeniable”.
The second weekend in September will be filled with a chorus of pro-independence rhetoric given the SNP’s annual gathering coincides with Alex Salmond’s Alba Party’s conference. The following month ahead of COP26 Boris could be in full collegiate mode at his promised four nations’ summit.
Of course, setting a pre-condition for Indyref2 as Jack has done, however blurry, might seem like a clever manoeuvre to ensure, ultimately, that your side wins; whatever the circumstances. A case in point occurred in March 1979 when a referendum was held on creating a devolved Scottish Assembly. The vote was close: 52% for and 48% against. Yet it didn’t happen, because a legal threshold of 40% of the total Scottish electorate voting Yes was not reached.
Enraged, the Nationalists dropped their support for the embattled minority Labour Government and, just four weeks later, a successful Tory no-confidence motion, with SNP backing, won by a single vote, triggering the 1979 General Election and the start of the Thatcher era.
Yet the tide of change was unstoppable. Some 18 years later, Labour, back in power under Tony Blair, tried again to introduce devolution in Scotland. This time there was no threshold and the Scottish Parliament was reborn two years later.
Boris knows the skill of running a successful government is to ride the wave of history, not be consumed by it: one more reason for him not to take unnecessary risks and to continue to say No to Indyref2 as the constitutional battle proper unfolds in 2022.