Last Thursday the people of Scotland voted to give the ruling Scottish National Party administration there a fourth consecutive term in office. There is one important difference, however, from its third term, which is that it fell a hair’s breadth short of an overall majority, and therefore will govern for the next four years with the help of the Green party. The Greens favor the SNP not because they share the Nationalists’ fervor for independence from the rest of the United Kingdom, but because they are attracted by the SNP’s commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, five years ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom. It is a policy that nicely exemplifies two aspects of the style of the SNP’s leader and Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon: it demonstrates the use and manipulation of pressure-group politics that has helped the SNP build constituencies of opinion within Scotland among those for whom Nationalism would not normally hold any great attraction; and it reflects Sturgeon’s determination to show that whatever the British government at Westminster says it can do, she is always promising something better. This was a feature of her management of the pandemic, a crisis she was greatly helped to combat via the money and logistical expertise that comes to Scotland through its membership in the Union. That last point, unsurprisingly, is not one she hastens to make herself.
Sturgeon is now entering a standoff with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, about having another referendum on whether or not Scotland remains in the political union that it sought in 1707 (the English and Scottish Crowns have been united since 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England on the death of Elizabeth I; there is no suggestion at this stage of breaking that union too, though Sturgeon is widely considered to have republican sympathies). In September 2014, the first such referendum led to the Scots rejecting independence by 55 percent to 45 percent, following a last-minute panic by pro-Union politicians of all parties that led to the grant of yet greater autonomy to Edinburgh. It was said at the time by the SNP that this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to achieve independence. It now appears that, in Scotland, a generation lasts about seven years, because Sturgeon claims the time has arrived for another one. The excuse she offers for this change of tack is that in 2014 nobody imagined Britain would shortly vote to leave the European Union—something Scots rejected by 62 percent to 38 percent. She tells Johnson that it is “when, not if” such a vote comes and intends to tar him with the brush of being anti-democratic for so long as he does not agree to make such a referendum a part of British government policy.
Tempted though she might be to seek to emulate the Catalans and call a referendum on her own initiative, Sturgeon can only do so illegally. Indeed, she might do well to examine the life and times of Carles Puigdemont, the former president of the government of Catalonia, who called an illegal referendum there in October 2017. Despite huge efforts by the Spanish authorities to stop the referendum, 43 percent of Catalans managed to vote, with 92 percent voting to leave Spain, and Puigdemont immediately made a unilateral declaration of independence. The Spanish government was having none of it and charged him and his close associates with rebellion. He fled to Brussels to avoid arrest; the famed European arrest warrant, designed to ensure that anyone charged with a crime in a member state can be extradited from another state to face charges, was exercised when he visited Germany, but the Germans decided the warrant was not so universal after all, and refused to extradite him. He remains in Belgium, living in exile in, of all places, Waterloo.
His case is relevant to Sturgeon, but not for the obvious reason. A legal referendum in her case would be one sanctioned by the United Kingdom parliament. Johnson, for the moment, refuses to do this, and in doing so not only defends legitimate constitutional practice but builds himself up, intentionally or otherwise, as the English bogeyman Sturgeon so desperately needs. Her lawyers are reported as to have advised her that she would break the law if she called her own plebiscite. Whether the U.K. government would pursue her in the way that Spain has pursued Puigdemont is far from certain. The United Kingdom is still suffering from the consequences of its centuries-old dispute with Ireland and will not be anxious to open a second front of internecine loathing within the British Isles. Its Irish experience may persuade it to tackle any such initiative by Sturgeon in a purely civil rather than a criminal context—investigating whether she has acted in a way that could incur her and her fellow ministers huge personal financial liabilities, for example, or finding that they had acted in a way that would merit their disqualification from public office. Locking her, or any of her comrades, up in jail is highly unlikely to be an option.
But the real lesson of Catalonia is that a proper pro-Union campaign would force her to reply to questions that remain unanswered. If this matter is to be put to rest once and for all, there has to be a proper campaign, in which she and those who think like her are forced to answer what exactly an independent Scotland will look like—because ever since the 2014 campaign, the SNP and its allies have been engaging in a form of fantasy politics. The Sturgeon future of Scotland is what the SNP has long called “Scotland independent in Europe.” The slogan itself is a grotesque misrepresentation of reality, because if Scotland joined the European Union, it would not be independent. It would suffer the same democratic privations and losses of sovereignty that caused the voters of England and Wales to vote to leave the European Union in 2016. But would Scotland, having voted to become independent, even be allowed to join the European Union? Many countries, to spite a Britain whom they now resent for having gotten out and, in doing so, having exposed some of the European Union’s fundamental failings, would doubtless be delighted to see Scotland back in the fold as a client state. But would the Spanish? If Spain agreed to it—and Scotland could not be let in without Spain’s approval—then it would simply flash the green light to Catalonia to press on with its own independence campaign, leaving Spain without the slightest moral authority to stop it. And it might also raise other questions in Spain, and in France, about the Basque country; and in France; about the rumbling campaign for Breton separatism; and indeed about the very existence of Belgium; and of course about the worsening north–south divide in Italy. Europe endorses separatism at its peril, however much it might still claim idealistically to be a “Europe of the regions.” Most nations in the European Union are much younger, in constitutional terms, than the United Kingdom.
Scotland has no idea whether it will be allowed in the bloc. It has no idea what currency it would use were it to leave the United Kingdom. If it immediately entered the European Union, it would be forced to use the euro, which would massively overvalue its currency and put in on a trajectory similar to Greece’s. If it did not become an E.U. state but sought to use pound sterling—rather as some third world countries use the U.S. dollar—it would be tied to a currency over which, by leaving the Union, it had no political influence. It would also acquire a share of the British national debt to pay off—it has about 8 percent of the United Kingdom’s population—and it would lose a subsidy from the U.K. treasury that the British government reckons to be £15 billion a year. Its financial services industry was wrecked during the 2008 crash, with the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS, its two main banks, being devastated by it. The price of oil, which it draws from the North Sea, has slumped and shows no prospect of significant recovery. Financially, the Union is the only visible means of support, a reality that pro-Union politicians on both sides of the border have been distressingly reluctant to tell Sturgeon. She simply won’t answer these three questions: in or out of Europe, what currency, and how is everything to be paid for?
She is lucky in her opponents. The Labour Party has been torpedoed in Scotland. It barely has any representation at Westminster, and those who want old-style redistributive, class-warrior socialism in Scotland vote for the SNP, who preach those policies with a brogue. Johnson, as discussed, is a totemic figure of hate there and would be well advised to delegate any Conservative party campaign for the Union to others. Douglas Ross, the levelheaded Conservative leader in Scotland, went to lengths in the recent election campaign to distance himself from the U.K. leader.
But Sturgeon has guilty secrets—and not just in her ongoing dispute with her predecessor, Alex Salmond, about the recent allegations of his misconduct with women that led to his acquittal in a court case. First, not all SNP voters were anti-Brexit. Second, not all SNP voters support independence: they vote SNP because their vote helps achieve the sort of socialist government the Labour Party has not a chance of providing. Sturgeon claims that her arrangement with the Greens gives Scotland a government committed to independence, but pollsters found that many who voted Green did so for environmental and not nationalistic reasons. And Scotland is also in a mess in other non-financial respects. The years of SNP rule have brought a steep decline in educational standards, with terrible consequences for the future human capital of Scotland, and Scotland has a level of drug addiction three times that of the next worst European country, Sweden.
The supposed social-democratic dream of Scotland under nationalist rule lacks only evidence to support it. For good measure, because of the crash in the oil price between the 2014 referendum and the date in 2016 when Scotland would have become independent, economists worked out it would have been insolvent from day one. And the London School of Economics, no right-wing bastion, has recently calculated that Scotland would suffer three times the amount of economic damage by independence than it did from Brexit—always assuming, of course, that it does end up suffering damage from Brexit, which has been exaggerated for the U.K. economy generally.
Johnson is entirely right to refuse a referendum. Scotland has had one, the “generation” has yet to pass, and the evidence Sturgeon adduces of support for her policy is highly questionable. Yet it might be a gamble worth taking to give her the vote she seeks, before divisions deeper even further—to call her bluff. But if that gamble is taken, it is time for Scotland’s economic drivers—such as the businesses that have already threatened to re-locate to England in the event of independence—to move to the forefront of the campaign to save the Union, and not to leave it to politicians of questionable ability, probity, and popularity.