Michael Settle: Is Indyref2 standoff simply Scottish democracy versus UK law?

APRIL is the cruellest month, so the poet TS Eliot tells us. In 2022, it will certainly feel like it because this is when people’s taxes go up as will our energy and council tax bills.

But as any savvy politician knows, in a crisis lies opportunity. So, it may not come as a surprise to her detractors at least, that this is when Nicola Sturgeon has said she is looking to announce “concrete decisions” on Indyref2; Covid permitting. 

Last week, in an interview with the FT, the FM claimed she had “probably got time on my side” in her battle of wills with Boris Johnson over the staging of another vote on Scotland’s future.

The FM referred to demographics, namely, a majority of younger Scots support independence.

Last month, a poll suggested the Yes/No breakdown among those aged 16 to 34 was 62%/31% for males and 56%/36% for females. Interestingly, the equivalent numbers for those aged over 55 were 37%/61% and 33%/60% respectively. 

The story goes David Cameron became increasingly relaxed about allowing Edinburgh to set the franchise in 2014 after he was told private polling showed 16 and 17-year-olds were more likely to vote for the Union than against it. The psephology now suggests otherwise.

But, of course, while Sturgeon believes Indyref2 is a matter of when, not if, young people get older. Views alter with time; change is constant.

It may well be many of today’s generation of 16 and 17-year-olds, who are passionately pro-independence, will continue to be so in five, 10 and 20 years’ time. But, then again, they might not.

One politician who believes time is pressing and is not impressed by what he regards as Sturgeon’s vacillation is the exasperated Alex Salmond.

On Friday, the ex-FM and Alba leader insisted Scots had expressed their wish for self-determination at no fewer than five successive elections and asked: “Does Scotland have time on its side?”

In a dig at his successor, Salmond declared: “What we can’t and mustn’t do is constantly march people up to the top of the hill and tell them a referendum is just around the corner without any sign whatsoever of a strategy to deliver it.

“Because unless you start that campaign for Scottish self-determination, you are never going to deliver it,” he said.

During last week’s Conservative joke-filled jamboree, Alister Jack suggested time was in fact not on Queen Nicola’s side but on King Boris’s as he shamelessly moved the constitutional goalposts.

Having previously said he regarded the SNP leadership’s 2014 referendum campaign mantra – that it was a “once in a generation” vote – to mean 25 years and then later argued the pro-independence camp would need a 60% vote in opinion polls for a sustained period, the Scottish Secretary unexpectedly sequenced them together.

So, the new position became Indyref2 would happen post 2039 but only if, thereafter, the Yes campaign had 60% public support “sustained for over 12 months,” which, if it happened, would take us into 2040.

By when, time will be neither on Sturgeon’s nor Johnson’s side as they will both be into their seventies.

The SNP leader claimed she also had democracy on her side, insisting after the May Holyrood poll she had a mandate, strengthened by her parliamentary deal with the Scottish Greens, to hold a second referendum.

Ahead of this weekend’s Green conference in Edinburgh, co-leader Patrick Harvie, now a Government colleague of Sturgeon’s, no doubt deepened Salmond’s frustration by saying the democratic principle of Indyref2 was “more important than the precise timing of when it happens”.

In her FT interview, the FM explained: “If you’re saying that there is no legitimate, democratic, constitutional route for Scotland to choose independence, where does that leave us? The Union suddenly is no longer what it has always been, a voluntary, consensual union of nations.”

This echoed a point made in April by Ciaran Martin, Whitehall’s lead negotiator on the 2014 independence poll, who said refusing to allow a second vote, if Scots wanted one, would fundamentally change the Union from “one based on consent to one based on the force of law”.

And, of course, Boris believes, probably rightly, the law is on his side. The Scotland Act underscores the sovereignty of Westminster.

Last month, a leaked email revealed Ian Blackford, the Nationalists’ Westminster leader, telling colleagues that, when they returned to the Commons this week, the SNP would be upping its game on Indyref2 and “moving into a new phase of independence campaigning”.

Sturgeon has now ordered civil servants to start putting together an independence prospectus. She has already made clear if Boris won’t give her another referendum – and he won’t – then her government would hold its own.

While Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, insists such a poll would be a “wildcat” Catalan-style referendum, Nicola has made clear she is only interested in holding a legal vote, which, she believes, would be the case if Holyrood sanctioned one because the voters have given her a mandate.

Thus, a constitutional battle looms.

But after last week’s UK Supreme Court ruling against Edinburgh – when the judges suggested two Holyrood bills had been drafted “in terms, which deliberately exceed the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament” – the omens for success in the legal ding-dong to come with London do not look good for Sturgeon.

And yet the real victory she seeks is not a legal one but a political one ie she keeps the bid for Indyref in the headlines on the theme of Scottish democracy versus UK law.

If April does turn out to be the cruellest month and Boris is facing a sea of political troubles, including more intense pressure for Indyref2 from the court of Queen Nicola, he could seek solace in another poet, John Milton, who optimistically looked forward to better times, noting how “the jolly hours lead on propitious May”.

The question is: when the constitutional battle proper is joined whose side will poetic justice be on?


The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992