Never a good time to call #indyref2 but…

Let’s start with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for Yes:

  1. It reinforces a well-established argument for constitutional change: we voted for X but got Y because we are outnumbered by voters in England. Voting Remain but getting Leave is the latest version of voting Labour (and now SNP) in Scotland but getting a Conservative UK government.
  2. It reinforces the same argument about the effect of that ‘democratic deficit’: ‘London’/’Westminster’ is forcing us to accept policies we did not choose. Voting Leave is the latest version of the ‘bedroom tax’ (and, for older readers, the ‘poll tax’).
  3. It helps reframe the idea that the Scottish independence aim is nationalist and parochial. Suddenly, independence is the cosmopolitan choice if we are rejecting a ‘Little England’ mentality.
  4. Some people who voted to stay in the UK and EU will prefer the EU to the UK (and think an independence vote is the best way to achieve it).

Traditionally, the main response to 1 & 2 has come from the Conservative Party, offering concessions in areas such as spending, levels of representation in Westminster, and in Scotland’s status in UK-devolved relations.

Recently, UKIP has been more critical of Scotland’s privileged position in the UK, and even the Conservative party qualifies its support of Scotland’s place in the Union.

Labour’s more recent response has been more interesting, and not what I expected. I figured Scottish Labour would encourage the equivalent of a free vote of its members. Instead, it has rejected indyref2 in favour of a ‘federal’ solution and two anti-referendum strategies:

  1. To describe indyref2 as yet another divisive and destabilising event like Brexit and the election of Trump.
  2. To challenge the idea that Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice. Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism. Although Khan is reported to have backtracked a bit, former Labour minister Douglas Alexander doubled down:

This strategy has gone down like a fart in a lift among people already committed to Yes. It’s too early to gauge its durability or long term effect on the voters thinking about switching, but we already know that the SNP campaigned in indyref1 with a message – for example, ‘to make life better for the people who live here’ – that contrasts heavily with the anti-immigrant rhetoric in some parts of the Leave campaign. Indeed, I’d expect it to reinforce a pro-immigration (or, a very pro-EU citizen) message to provide a deliberate contrast to parts of the Brexit campaign, making it relatively difficult for Labour to maintain an if-you-vote-Yes-you-share-the-same-aim-as-bigots argument (which didn’t work well during the Brexit debate anyway).

Let’s continue with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for No

  1. The No campaign was based on the economic harms of independence, and key symbols (like oil price volatility) have reinforced the message.
  2. We still don’t know what currency an independent Scotland would use.
  3. The Yes vote meant all things to all people, with no sense of what would be realistic.
  4. Brexit shows you that a transition to independence would be far tougher than advertised.

Point 4 is still unfolding. We’ve already seen that the £350m-for-the-NHS argument was mince, a reduction in the value of the pound, and some hard talking from likely EU negotiators (UK hard-talking was a key theme of indyref1). Yet, the effects of such developments are still open to debate (the £ issue is bad for the consumer but good for the exporter).

More importantly, it’s hard to know how to relate these events to Scotland. One the one hand, Yes needs a disastrous Brexit to show that it is powerless to ward off disaster. On the other, No needs a partly-disastrous Brexit to show that separation is painful.

Can there be a ‘rational’ calculation of when/if to call indyref2?

If we focus on the idea of a rational calculating Nicola Sturgeon, developing a formula to determine the right time to hold indyref2, the timing would involve: (a) waiting long enough for Brexit to ‘bite’ and prompt voters to feel its effects and shift to Yes, and (b) waiting for the UK Government to stiff Scotland in its negotiations of future Scottish devolved powers, but (c) not waiting too long to disrupt the (not guaranteed) continuation of its EU membership. This time has not arrived and, as John Curtice suggests, may not arrive.

Or, will it come down to passion and emotion?

Yet, if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that people are driven strongly by emotion, and might put ‘feelings over facts’. So, why should leaders of the SNP be exempt from a bout of passion, especially if loads of their supporters are keen, see it as a last opportunity for decades, and hope that they can change some minds during the next campaign? The fact that I argue the very opposite in another post is neither here nor there!

I still think that the result itself will comes down to who tells the Yes/ No stories and how well they do it, and that Yes has a far better hero/villain story now than in 2014, while No has the same old boring story of economic disaster and can no longer rely on those leaflets with Salmond’s face on a pound coin.

Firs published on the author’s own site


  1. Bill Laing says

    I think that BREXIT will be far more disruptive than Scottish Independence. Scotland would become the sucessor state where there would be a lot of business as usual (better than usual hopefully) albeit on a smaller scale and with blue letterboxes. I’d go as far as to say BREXIT will ruin the rUK economy for decades while Scotland has the opportunity to fly.

    There will of course be difficulties for Scotland but I think these will pale into insignificance compared rUK’s full burden of BREXIT and a debt of 1.8 trillion.

  2. says

    Nicely balanced pro and con. Labour’s ‘not what I expected’ response may have something to do with focus groups revealing not just referendum-fatigue but a serious split between SNP Leave and Remain voters. And while unpredictable emotions may well produce alternative facts, both referendum fatigue and SNP Leave voters add to the uncertainties around indyref2.

    • Bill Laing says

      Maybe the strategy should be to join the European Economic Area post independence and thus keep the SNP leave contingent on board. A case of first get your independence and when that is in the bag consider other issues like the EU and the Monarchy. Membership of the EEA would probably please the fishing comunity if we can emulate Norway and keep the fishing grounds to ouselves.

      My favourite analogy is first get your bypass and then agitate for the grade separated junctions. This worked for Stonehaven although there was talk of the bypass decades before it happened.

  3. Bob Tait says

    It seems to me that Prof Cairney has got the main ingredients of the post-Brexit arguments for and against independence spot on. We might call these ingredients the main wheels on which the pro- and anti-indy campaigns would run and turn as they tell those Yes/No stories on which, as he rightly says, the result would depend.

    As a pro-indy and pro-EU-membership but sceptical Scot I think he understates the potential traction of all four of the No campaign wheels. A No campaign would be able to amplify talk of economic risks (1). Likewise as regards the currency we would use shorter term or longer term (2). Much can be made of Yes meaning different things to different people and questions asked about how “realistic” their aspirations are (3). And, as he says, Brexit shows just how tough a proposition independence can be: which has to be more of a deterrent rather than a stimulus as regards Scottish independence.

    Any successful Yes story/campaign would have to stop that four-wheel drive vehicle in its tracks. It can do that successfully only by honestly acknowledging those challenges and convincing enough people that they are not insuperable, can be addressed and are worth addressing when compared with the fate of being stuck in the belly of the Brexit beast.

    But there is also a big road block to be removed or passed before any such Battle of the Stories can even begin. A British government has to permit/agree to a constitutionally and politically effective indyref2. How or why would that happen any time soon? I’ve raised this point already in a comment on “Scottish fast-track to the EU”. I’ll go right on raising it until someone comes up with a credible answer.

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