My gut says that there will be a second referendum on Scottish independence and that Yes will win comfortably. Yet, predicting political events and outcomes right now is like predicting the weather. The result is not inevitable, largely because the key factors prompting people to vote No have not gone away – and, in some ways, the No case is now stronger. I’ll explain this by (a) comparing the likely Yes and No stories during the next campaign, and (b) speculating wildly about the extent to which key parties will campaign as hard for No in the second referendum.
Brexit is a Godsend for the strongest Yes stories:
- Only independence can remove the democratic deficit and guarantee that we make our own decisions.
It sounds like the Brexit ‘take our country back’ story, in which a remote government in a remote city makes decisions on our behalf without us having any say (it’s ‘London’ for Scotland, whereas in England/ Wales it can be London or ‘Brussels’).
Yet, there are key differences: the SNP is pro-immigration (its nationalism is ‘civic’, not ‘ethnic’) and the ‘democratic deficit’ means something else. When applied to the EU, it means that (a) few people know how it works and who, if anyone, is accountable, and (b) that it is difficult to vote for EU policymakers in the same way as we vote for national governments.
When applied to Scotland, it means that most voters in Scotland have tended to vote Labour or SNP in Westminster elections, but they often get a UK Tory government. So, a government with no legitimacy in Scotland makes decisions on our behalf, and there is nothing the Scottish Government can do about it.
In the campaign for devolution, this story developed in opposition to the Thatcherite imposition of things like the poll tax. In the campaign for independence, the poll tax became the bedroom tax.
In the next campaign for independence, the Brexit vote will become an important symbol for this argument: we voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU and we are being dragged out against our will by England (and Wales).
I think this argument will win the day, for two reasons. First, most of the 45% who voted Yes in 2014 seem like a sure bet for the next vote. Second, there are some people who voted No on the assumption of remaining in the UK in the EU. They now have to choose between (a) in the UK and out of the EU, or (b) in the EU and out of the UK.
- Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice
Crucially, the Brexit is a godsend for the argument that Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice. It was too easy for opponents to argue in 2014 that nationalism was parochialism: by focusing on Scotland, you are removing yourself from the world. The counter-argument – let’s become independent to play a more positive role in that world – was relatively difficult to make.
Now, the door is open to argue that the Brexit vote reflects a Little England mentality, and that only Scottish independence offers the chance to cooperate fully with our European partners. In Scotland, cosmopolitan voters will share a campaign with nationalist voters.
Put these parts together and you have this story: independence is the only solution to being ruled from afar by the Tories who are determined (with the help of UKIP) to turn us into a Little England state which blames immigrants or the rest of the world for its problems.
Yet, the No story remains powerful too, for two original reasons and one new reason.
The No story:
1. Economic damage, uncertainty, and the currency issue
‘Better Together’ campaigned hard on the idea that a Yes vote will be economically damaging, producing a major government deficit in the short term with no guarantee of improvement in the long term (note that the rest of the UK is Scotland’s biggest trading partner, and we need their partnership). They also argued successfully that Scotland could no longer use Sterling if independent (which really meant that the Scottish Government would no longer enjoy the same crucial relationship with the Bank of England).
Most No voters will have felt good about their decision because the price of a barrel of oil plummeted after 2014, giving the impression that Scotland’s short term economic deficit would have been even higher. Further, the currency issue remains unresolved, and the main alternatives to using the pound with the UK Government/ BoE’s blessing (Sterlingisation, a Scottish pound, joining the Euro) still won’t seem like brilliant prospects to undecided voters.
The No story:
2. The Yes vote meant all things to all people.
A further No argument related to the idea that all sorts of people were making all sorts of claims about a future independent Scotland, and that they couldn’t all be right. The Scottish Government’s ‘White Paper’ was more sensible, but was still built on hope more than expectation. So, if you don’t share that optimism, it just looks like a long document designed to look professional and reassuring without really providing a blueprint for action or a measured set of expectations.
A third new part of the story: we now see what happens when you vote to leave (and it’s bad)
The biggest effect of the Brexit on the No story is that we can already see what happens when people vote to leave a political union:
(1) We immediately see that people were making all sorts of promises that they couldn’t keep, and/ or that key people backtrack very quickly (examples after the Brexit vote include the ridiculous £350m for the NHS claim, and the now more modest claims about immigration). It’s easy to say what you are leaving behind, but not what you will do instead.
(2) We immediately see some frightening economic consequences.
(3) We are about to discover how our former political partners will react, and it doesn’t look like they’ll simply hug us and wish us all the best.
So, (4) the No campaign will be about emphasising this uncertainty and the poor consequences of political divorce as they are happening in real time.
In the end, it comes down to who will tell these Yes/ No stories and how well they do it
The main problem for a new No campaign is that I don’t think it will have the same backing. In the first campaign, almost all of the main parties against independence signed up to a common project. Yet, it was damaging to Scottish Labour and I doubt they’ll sign up a second time to represent the ‘Red Tories’, particularly since many members will vote Yes next time.
It will be largely down to Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives, who campaigned in 2016 as the SNP’s main opposition and the defenders of the UK. Although they did pretty well in the Holyrood elections, pretty well means 23% of the vote.
In contrast, the SNP is a highly professional outfit, which lost a referendum but gained a huge membership, has a very popular leadership, and still enjoys an incredibly strong image of governing competence (particularly for a party in government for 9 years).
If you want to put it more simply and to personalise the next campaign, I simply say this:
Nicola Sturgeon has already perfected the look of someone pissed off with UK Government incompetence, reluctantly proposing a second referendum to deal with the mess, and able to reject most arguments about economic and political uncertainty as bloody rich coming from the people who just voted to leave the EU. Salmond might have looked too (‘I told you so’) smug to pull it off, but Sturgeon looks genuinely annoyed rather than opportunistic.
Who can perform the same function for the No side? There are almost no London-based politicians that could generate the same kind of respect that Sturgeon enjoys. Ruth Davidson is the next best thing, but she will spend a fair amount of each debate being a bit embarrassed about the situation in which she finds herself, through no fault of her own.
So, the irony may be that No has, in some ways, a stronger case in the second referendum but a far lower chance of success: it will lose because there will be no-one out there able to tell the No story.
This emphasis on telling simple stories well matters more than we would like to admit. The facts don’t speak for themselves: you turn them into a story to engage with people’s existing biases and tendency to base decisions on very little information. So, who will tell and listen to the No story the next time around?