Exactly two years ago today (how time flies), we wrote this:
It doesn’t seem overly immodest to say that we pretty much nailed it. But if that was then and this is now, what of tomorrow?
A referendum in which Yes fell just 5.4% short of the winning post was never going to settle the constitutional question for a generation, no matter how frantically Unionists try to distort a few quotes to that effect. That’s just not how real-life politics works, and in any event the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 effectively define a political “generation” as seven years in a referendum context.
The bottom line is that you can’t stand in the way of a nation’s political will with semantics. But this year’s Brexit vote put a turbo-boost on something that was almost certainly going to happen within a decade anyway.
Having voted by a far bigger margin to stay in the EU than to stay in the UK, it’s simply not credible that Scotland could then be torn out of Europe without being given a final chance to choose which union it prefers. All that remains to be settled is when.
If the UK government had put a tenth as much preparation into its “Plan A” for a Leave vote as the Scottish Government did over independence (their respective paperwork was the 176,000-word White Paper versus a pitiful 1,523-word leaflet urging a Remain vote), Article 50 would have been triggered the day after the vote and the process would be well under way already.
But the reckless incompetence of Westminster has thrown a spanner in the works. Furiously stalling for time, the UK government doesn’t even plan to begin negotiations for months. And so ineptly, haphazardly and reluctantly is it dealing with a result that neither the previous nor current Prime Ministers wanted that nobody can say with any credible certainty when the process will end.
Nevertheless, one day it must. Article 50 imposes an iron time limit of two years on the subsequent talks, and Theresa May can’t fob off the angry Leave voters of England and Wales forever. Next year sees a tranche of English council elections in almost exclusively Tory areas (as well as the whole of Scotland), and it’d be a brave PM who went into those having STILL not triggered Article 50.
So if we assume it must happen by next May, that makes May 2019 the logical cut-off point for Brexit. It’s coincidentally also the date the next European election is due – an event which of course remains on the UK political calendar, precisely because we haven’t even begun the process of Brexit yet.
It would be farcical for the UK to still be an EU member at that point – because we’d still have to hold those elections if there was no clear exit date in place – but in the current UK political climate, something being farcical is no barrier to it happening.
Nevertheless, let’s take it as the closest thing that we’ve got to a rationally plausible outcome. It would make sense to hold a second indyref at the same time. It would massively reduce the costs and admin, and it’s infinitely preferable from everyone’s point of view – Scotland’s, the EU’s and the rUK’s – for Scotland to STAY in the EU rather than to be dragged out then try to JOIN at a later date.
(Honestly, it’s simply not possible to overstate how much that’s the case. For about a thousand mainly pretty obvious reasons the technicalities of the latter scenario, for all three entities, would by comparison be absolutely insanely complex and costly. It’d be a lot less trouble just to go to war with Russia.)
Given the language already coming from Europe, the EU would almost certainly be amenable to granting Scotland some sort of temporary bridging membership allowing it to continue without a break while the fine details were thrashed out. The Unionist myth of a Spanish veto would finally be torpedoed, because staying in would be a matter for qualified-majority voting. This time people would know exactly what they were voting on, rather than the No camp’s lies that Yes meant out and No meant in.
So, indyref 2 in May 2019? It makes as much sense as anything else. And make no mistake, for all of its “No Surrender, Er, We Mean No More Referendums” talk (and all of its incessant demands that the SNP simply give up its primary reason for existing and get on with everyday governance), the Unionist camp is in full preparation.
The Sunday Times yesterday carried a report of a recent fundraising dinner for the hardline nutter collective Scotland In Union, which by auctioning off hunting, shooting and fishing weekends and Swiss chalet holidays to an audience of wealthy elites – including the renowned republican socialist Baron Alistair Darling of Roulanish and the under-secretary of state for Scotland, Baron Andrew Dunlop – was said to have gathered a startling £300,000 for the shadowy loongroup.
(We fervently hope it uses the money to put on more speaking events featuring spectacular moon-howling fruitcakes like Tom Gallagher and Jill Stephenson, perhaps in a tour encompassing the whole of Scotland or a two-hour film or somesuch. Were their mad, inflammatory and poisonous rantings to ever be exposed to an audience with an average age below 65, a landslide victory for Yes would surely result.)
The story shows that the Yes camp will again struggle to compete financially with the massed might of the British establishment – it only managed to stay even vaguely in contention last time thanks to the generosity of a pair of lottery winners, despite the hilarious protestations of “Better Together” that they were the economic underdogs.
(In the end, No campaigners outspent Yes ones by over 150%.)
But where Yes undoubtedly has the advantage is people power. In 2014 Tory money was able to fund a Labour ground operation (even if much of it had to be bussed up from England), but Labour is now a tattered flag flying limply over a pile of broken rubble, and far too busy fighting itself to play much of a role in any second indyref.
And the Yes movement is already mobilising again in preparation for a new campaign, even without any political-party organisation or backing.
The reason both sides are gearing up for battle again is that regardless of their rhetoric it actually suits both of them to have a second vote sooner rather than later.
For the Yes side there’s the urgency of staying in Europe, the natural impatience of the recently-defeated and the fear of lost momentum. Plus by the spring of 2019 it’ll almost certainly be obvious that Scotland is looking at at least another six years of brutal Tory governments it didn’t elect, and the further away a social-democratic UK government looks the more attractive independence is to most Scottish voters.
But the No camp don’t really want to hang around either, because for all the perpetual avalanches of “peak SNP” articles in the newspapers, the reality is that they know the reverse is true – the 2016 election is in fact far more likely to have represented “peak Unionism”, at least for the forseeable future.
Labour’s support in Scotland is still in freefall, with the most recent polls showing it down by over a quarter even on its calamitous performance in the Holyrood election four months ago. And while a more or less unconcealed return to the old sectarian Loyalist outlook of its 1950s heyday has seen the Tories get a boost, that support has a ceiling only a little higher than the party’s current position.
Barring unforseeable extreme events like Nicola Sturgeon falling down a well or being seen on TV machine-gunning orphan babies, there’s no feasible scenario for anyone other than the SNP running Scotland for the next decade. Even a so-called “grand coalition” of Tories, Labour and Lib Dems would struggle to get enough votes together to elect a First Minister in 2021, particularly given the political difficulty of Labour MSPs voting for a Tory one, among many other likely problems.
(Under the Holyrood electoral system, tactical voting probably reached its practical limits in May with the small handful of FPTP seats plucked from the SNP tsunami by the likes of Willie Rennie, Ruth Davidson, Daniel Johnson and Alex Cole-Hamilton.)
And what all three Unionist parties know is that broadly speaking, the longer the SNP are in control of the government of Scotland the closer independence gets. They’ve watched in uncomprehending horror as even a collapse in oil revenues to almost zero and an endless diet of TERRIFYING BLACK HOLE stories in the media hasn’t put a single dent in poll ratings for either the Nats or for independence.
They also know that those polls still show them in the lead, that things are only likely to get worse as Brexit unfolds, and that a second defeat in quick succession would knock independence on the head for a long time. (Apart from anything else, it’s hard to imagine what would be a bigger material change in the future than Brexit.)
So to cut a long story short, we’re putting our hard-won prediction record on the line: keep your diaries clear for the first half of 2019, folks.