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Two years after Scotland’s vote, support for independence is stuck in the mud

Two years after Scotland’s vote, support for independence is stuck in the mud

James Edwards

September 18 marks the second anniversary of the Scottish independence referendum, perhaps the most intense, exciting and fascinating period in the country’s political history. And despite the No vote, it’s certainly not business as usual in Scotland. So what has changed in the past two years, and where next?

The political divide north and south of the border has been steadily growing since the referendum. Most important is arguably the extra powers on their way to Scotland. From next April, all Scottish income tax revenue will go to the Scottish government, along with the power to create and alter bands.

The Left sees the possibility of generating extra revenues to tackle austerity and social justice. For all sides, it’s an added incentive to grow the economy to increase the tax take.

Yet the economy looks weak compared to the rest of the UK – with probably the worst fiscal picture since 2007. With some social security powers devolving too, the Scottish government faces challenging spending decisions that probably mean cuts.

X marks the spot

The constitutional divide has been just as clear at the ballot box. The message from the Scottish public at the 2015 UK election was that the SNP were best placed to keep up the pressure on the Cameron government to deliver on devolution. When the party won nearly 50% of the Scottish vote, winning a remarkable 56 of 59 Scottish seats, unionist Scottish Labour were the main losers.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives won at UK level by playing up the threat from an SNP-backed minority Labour government to stability, security and territorial integrity. Critics of the Conservatives said the real threat to territorial integrity was campaign posters like the one of Labour leader Ed Miliband dancing like a puppet as the SNP’s Alex Salmond played the flute.

In the same vein has been the Conservatives’ introduction of English votes for English laws. This system of excluding non-English MPs from purely English matters became law last autumn, and critics have said it effectively makes non-English MPs second class.

Take your partners …

And yet the Scottish Conservatives unexpectedly ousted Labour to become Holyrood’s second largest party at this year’s Scottish election. Under Ruth Davidson, whose personal ratings have just overtaken first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s, the Conservatives arguably succeeded through positioning themselves as best placed to defend the union.

One look at the electoral map gives a good indication of what happened: the Conservatives appealed to middle class No voters in places like Aberdeenshire, East Renfrewshire and Edinburgh. It was another sign that most Scottish politics has been viewed through the constitutional prism since the indyref. Scottish Labour has failed to adapt, tending to insist that policy issues not be treated as constitutional issues.

These trends seem likely to continue at the local elections next year. All eyes will be on whether Labour can cling to control of Glasgow City Council.

Post-Brexit

When 62% of Scots voted Remain in the EU referendum as the UK voted Brexit, it undoubtedly shifted the political goalposts. The Better Together campaign’s assurances in 2014 that voting No would secure EU membership for Scotland now look hollow. So too the assertion that the UK represented the most stable choice for Scotland’s economy. The Brexit vote also revived old complaints about a democratic deficit in Scotland. These factors could all make a second referendum a rather different affair.

The pro-independence movement looks more prepared than in 2014, too: recent launches include activist platform Common Social and the National Yes Registry, a tool to help dormant pro-independence groups organise. Women For Independence and the socialist Common Weal are thriving, while online news outlet CommonSpace has shown you can be both pro-independence and critical of the SNP.

In the driving seat? Anthony Devlin/PA

The only problem is public sentiment. The SNP long talked about Brexit being the “material change in circumstances” to justify another referendum, and Nicola Sturgeon signalled as much immediately after the EU referendum. Yet the SNP’s 2016 manifesto first also wanted evidence of clear, sustained support for independence – generally seen as the 60% bracket.

After the Brexit vote, polling showed a slim majority for independence. Since then, Scotland has reverted to narrowly leaning towards the union – not what the SNP might have hoped for at this stage. There are probably a number of reasons. EU membership is likely of minor importance to most Scots and, at this stage, unlikely to be a massive gamechanger. A sizeable proportion of SNP/independence voters also voted to leave the EU, contrary to party policy.

Perhaps most importantly, recent figures suggest an independent Scotland’s fiscal deficit would exceed 9% of GDP compared to the UK’s circa 4% – considerably worse than in 2014. The North Sea oil decline is hitting Scotland hard. Many “soft” No voters are more worried about deeper spending cuts and higher taxes to meet spending commitments than EU membership.

Sturgeon’s dilemma

The conundrum is how to turn this sentiment around. To that end, the SNP recently launched a listening exercise around independence. The party faces a dilemma, however. To call a referendum, it needs to maintain a pro-independence majority in Holyrood. But if a majority continue to favour the union, it risks alienating the very voters it wishes to attract to independence. So it needs to walk a middle ground.

One possible route to independence might be the UK economy taking a significant nosedive post-Brexit. Many chose No in 2014 believing an independent Scottish economy would perform less well. A tanking UK economy might make independence look the safer option.

Alternatively, the prospect of an increased Tory majority at the next UK election could galvanise a Yes vote from Scottish antipathy to the party dating back to Margaret Thatcher. But given the Conservatives’ recent electoral performance in Scotland, you wouldn’t bank on it.

So if the SNP thought Brexit had given them an open goal for independence, it certainly doesn’t look that way. Winning a majority at a future referendum looks tough, perhaps even unlikely.