Opinion by G.A.Ponsonby
There was a cracking headline in the Herald newspaper a few days ago. It read “Sturgeon set to be invited to tell peers how Union can be strengthened”.
The idea that Scotland’s First Minister would seek to give tips on how to strengthen the Union is laughable of course. Nicola Sturgeon would no sooner offer Unionists advice on how best to defeat the independence movement than she would tell a foreign diplomat she wanted a Conservative PM.
The reason for the mischievous headline is that the issue of independence is back on the agenda, or rather the issue of a second referendum. Unionists are terrified at the prospect, and with good cause. The thin red line that is the Labour Party in Scotland is disintegrating before their very eyes.
Labour’s turmoil at UK level is really a de-facto civil war in England. Jeremy Corbyn has emerged like a latter day Oliver Cromwell confounding the establishment Cavaliers of Cooper, Burnham and Kendall.
The leadership contest has provided unexpected entertainment for nationalists still wallowing in the afterglow of the general election. Corbyn’s meteoric rise led to another cracking headline in The Herald, ‘SNP supporters have infiltrated Labour leadership contest to swing it for Corbyn, party source claims’.
But an entertaining sideshow is all Labour’s leadership contest is. Regardless of who wins the contest to lead a dying party, and Labour is dying, it will have little effect on Scotland’s seemingly unstoppable move towards independence.
On Sunday Alex Salmond opined that a second referendum is, he believes, inevitable. The former First Minister was responding to a question posed by BBC presenter Andrew Marr. Salmond didn’t say anything he hadn’t said before, although the BBC reacted as though he had just revealed who killed JFK.
But it thrust the issue of independence back into the spotlight, which was probably intentional. Few people, if they are entirely honest, would disagree with Salmond and there are two main reasons for this.
The first is that the 45 per cent of people who voted Yes in September 2014 haven’t gone away. Instead they have coalesced around the SNP and have done so specifically to ensure a second referendum remains a reality.
The second is that Nicola Sturgeon is enjoying unprecedented levels of support even amongst non-SNP voters. She is trusted at a level Alex Salmond never enjoyed.
These two facts, coupled with Labour’s collapse across the UK, mean another majority SNP administration is all but certain.
But what of Salmond’s insistence that the First Minister will decide the timing of the second referendum? The BBC has tried to make some mischief from this by claiming it appears to contradict Sturgeon’s pledge that the Scottish people will decide whether or not a second referendum is held.
But Salmond is correct. An SNP manifesto need not outline the date of the next independence referendum, only that it may hold one. The SNP will most likely demand the right to put the issue of a second referendum to the Scottish Parliament should it triumph in 2016. A majority of MSPs in favour would thus ensure indyref2.
Unionists of course will not be happy. But unlike Westminster where Cameron’s government has simply ignored the democratic mandate given the SNP 56 by Scottish voters, Unionists will be powerless to deny this one.
One of the arguments being employed against a second independence referendum is the comments made by Salmond and Sturgeon prior to the last referendum. It’s true, both did indicate that they believed September 18th 2014 would be a once in a generation happening.
But pledges and promises work both ways. Scotland was promised “Home Rule, as near to federalism as possible”, by Gordon Brown just days before that referendum. Today that vow lies in tatters. Scotland is getting nowhere near the new powers promised. Unionists were first to break their pledge and a second referendum is their penance.
But will the SNP hold a second referendum within the term of the next Holyrood Parliament? I think it will. The SNP cannot hold onto its current level of support for ever and Sturgeon will eventually succumb to the mounting attacks on her integrity – Labour will eventually regroup in Scotland and the media will mount attacks on Scotland’s popular First Minister.
So another independence referendum is on the cards. My guess is probably September 2019, four months after the next European Parliament elections – if we are still in. By that time Cameron’s government will have been in power for over four years and the UK general election will be nine months away. Labour will most probably be trailing in UK polls and Scotland will be looking at five more years of Conservative Government.
In 2014 the scare campaign waged against Scotland’s electorate was so intense that Unionists must have privately reeled when the Yes campaign emerged from the mushroom cloud still intact and only five points short of victory. The 45 per cent are now immune to anything the Unionist propaganda machine can throw at them which means the second battle will be fought for a small group of soft No voters.
The Yes campaign needs only persuade six per cent of people to change their vote from five years’ previously. A new generation of youngsters will have joined the electorate.
The anti-independence campaign will be shorn of some of its most influential figures. Brown and his former colleague Darling are unlikely to feature prominently in the next referendum. There will be no Better Together campaign this time around. Unionists will be split on what tactics to employ against an increasingly attractive Yes campaign which will resurrect its theme of hope.
The No campaign will be trying to resurrect scare stories long since devalued. There will be no Barroso ready and willing to fuel EU-exit claims. Scots facing permanent austerity will not be put off voting Yes in the face of any currency threats from George Osborne.
Indyref2 is indeed inevitable and 2019 offers the best chance of success. A win isn’t guaranteed of course, there’s still the beast of the BBC to contend with. But nationalists may never again get the stars to align as they are about to.
Few believed the independence movement would regroup as quickly as it did following its defeat last year. Even fewer believed we could vanquish Labour in a UK general election. The SNP needs to seize this unexpected opportunity.
GA Ponsonby is author of the book ‘London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum‘