Simmering, not boiling: where are we now with the independence referendum?

James Mitchell

Academy of Government, University of Edinburgh

@ProfJMitchell

Where are we at the end of a period described by some as the start of the second independence referendum?

We are, in fact, not much further forward than before First Minister Sturgeon announced over a week ago that she would seek Parliamentary support for an independence referendum.  The Prime Minister rejected this overture but implicitly conceded that a referendum would be held, emphasising, ‘Now is not the time’.

Few expected the Prime Minister would emulate Wendy Alexander, past Scottish Labour leader, with her ‘bring it on’ response to the SNP demand for a referendum.  A referendum any time soon would be a major gamble, especially when the Prime Minister is dealing with Brexit, a phenomenally complex public policy challenge.  The First Minster and Prime Minister came to office following predecessors who had gambled unsuccessfully on referendums.  But ‘now is not the time’ involved a concession or, perhaps more accurately, an acceptance in the Prime Minister’s response that another independence referendum would occur at some point in the next few years.

The Conservatives have argued strongly against independence and might have been expected to rule out a second referendum altogether.  Opposition to independence has been a major theme in the Tories’ local election campaign.  At times, the Tories have come closest to being a one-issue party in Holyrood.

There is a logic in the Conservatives keeping the Scottish Question simmering, but also a danger.  The Conservatives replaced Labour in share of the regional list and seats in Holyrood last year (though Labour edged the Tories in share of the constituency vote) by presenting themselves as a ‘strong opposition’.  They have consolidated that position by emphasizing their opposition to independence.  In previous decades the Tories were electorally damaged by being the unionist party par excellence but no longer.

The Tories are very comfortable opposing independence robustly.  It unites the party as few issues can.  Having spent the early years of devolution trying to live down their anti-devolution past, the Tories have found a stance that suits them.  The Tories can garner in anti-independence votes, extending beyond the support they would have if the Scottish Question had been buried in 2014.

Oppositional politics allow parties to avoid facing the hard grind of policy development and delivery, as was witnessed amongst the Tories’ opponents during much of the 18 years when the Conservatives were in power until 1997.  The Tories are using the Scottish Question in ways reminiscent of Scottish politics in the 1980s, except that the boot is on the other foot.

Focus on the Scottish Question also avoids more troubling agendas for the Tories.  Brexit presents problems for Ruth Davidson given her previous vehement support for Remain and the challenges that Brexit will involve.  She does not want to be reminded of her clash with Boris Johnson and fellow Tories against whom she used her trademark aggressive debating style.  If the agenda shifted from the Scottish to the European Question, she would have to defend a policy which she recently described in the most negative terms.

Additionally, Scottish Tories want to avoid other aspects of the UK Government policy.  It would not help them if the agenda shifted to welfare reforms

In the early years of devolution, Scottish Labour basked in the reflected glory of the Blair Government during its long honeymoon years.  When the shine came off the New Labour, Scottish Labour struggled to distance themselves from their colleagues in London.  The Scottish Tories have happened upon a strategy to avoid association with the Conservatives in London.  For the moment, keeping the issue of Scottish independence simmering away works for the Tories.

But an issue that has been simmering can easily come to the boil.  There is a danger, as David Cameron discovered to his personal cost, in stoking the fires to keep an issue simmering.  Just as Margaret Thatcher was the midwife of devolution, so might Ruth Davidson be the midwife o

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