Sturgeon is not as invincible as she projects. The Union has begun to fight back

The FT reports that the £ reached a new high level “as prospects for a new early  referendum on Scottish independence dimmed.”  This might strike you as very odd after panic hit the  London media  at the news of the inevitable SNP victory on Friday. Just as weird was the desperate consolation sought in the fact that the SNP failed to win an absolute majority by a single vote. I just don’t get that; they’re home and dry with the support of the Greens. The falling short is purely token. Clearly the markets dislike the uncertainty likely to be created by another Indyref campaign. The shock of first reactions in London means that Westminster realises at last that they may have a problem in Scotland. Do Johnson and the Tories care?  The same question occurs as for Northern Ireland. He is secure beyond his wildest dreams  or  rather  the nightmare of even a week ago when he seemed drowning in a tide of petty scandal.  Great Britain ( certainly not NI),  is now  looking split under three different convincing  mandates, Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland and the Tories  in England , all mutually exclusive.

Three halves don’t make a United Kingdom.  So  bet  on Johnson caring big time. This is about history. What government could survive break up? He will ask himself (carefully out of hearing):  what would Churchill have done?

Sturgeon loudly proclaims: how can the people of Scotland be denied?  But look closer and her brilliant clarity becomes a little occluded. The Union is fighting back, not before time.

Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown who once had Scotland in his pocket, is on manoeuvres..

 The thinktank Our Scottish Future (of which I am a founding member), the full results of which are to be published early this week, found that on the same day as 48% of voters opted for the SNP, a far higher number of Scots – 73% – wanted better cooperation between Scotland and the rest of the UK, support that remains as high when it comes to the specifics of addressing the health, poverty, jobs and climate crises we so obviously share in common

And Andrew Neil, now self confessedly on the centre right of politics has been looking at the polls and examining Sturgeon’s campaign record for that temple of impartiality, the Daily Mail.

The popular vote split 50:50 for separatist and Unionist parties last Thursday. Not quite a resounding clarion call for independence. Polls show only 36 per cent of Scots think a Holyrood majority for a referendum is a mandate for one; 46 per cent don’t. Most Scots want Holyrood to improve public services not divorce from England.

The most recent polls show support for separatism roughly where it was in 2014 – hovering around 45 per cent, a consistency of opinion that doesn’t give cause for another referendum. That’s also how the Scottish people see it.

Only around one in four agree with Sturgeon’s timetable for a referendum – before the end of 2023, which in reality means May or June of that year; only 45 per cent want one during the five years of the new parliament; over 50 per cent don’t want one within five years or ever.

Neil points out that in the campaign Sturgeon pulled out all  the stops to maximise her vote, as well she might have   But she succeeded he believes at the cost of  reducing her mandate for IndyRef 2

Only last month the First Minister told ITV that a vote for the SNP was ‘not voting for independence’; indeed ‘you are not even voting for another independence referendum’. It was, she stressed, all about making sure pandemic recovery was in her tried and tested hands.

Yet even before the final votes had been counted over the weekend, she was out in front of the TV cameras insisting she now had a mandate for a second referendum. It was the ‘will of the people’ and anybody who denied it was ‘picking a fight with the democratic wishes of the Scottish people’.

In the final televised debate of the campaign last week, Sturgeon was explicitly asked what voters who think she’d be the best candidate to lead Scotland out of the pandemic but wanted no truck with another referendum should do.

‘They should vote for me,’ she said with a steely stare to the camera – and no caveat

Sturgeon is undaunted.  The new government will move its own legislation for a new referendum to be held in 2023 and will defy the UK government to challenge in it in the Supreme Court – a move that might succeed but at the expense of strengthening the demand for independence

Michael Gove the de facto minister for the Union  declares “ w’ere not going  there”,  but this falls  short of an absolute denial. Even so Johnson government need not fall into that trap.

As Glen Campbell, BBC Scotland Political Editor writes:

UK government sources have made clear that just because they are not seeking to take legal action does not mean they would not go to court if a specific referendum proposal emerged.

Even if the UK government did not challenge, somebody surely would. The whisky industry tied up minimum alcohol pricing legislation in court for five years.

If the court ruled in Nicola Sturgeon’s favour, that might enable a referendum but it could still face a unionist boycott which would de-legitimise the outcome.

If the court ruled in Boris Johnson’s favour, that would thwart a referendum because Ms Sturgeon has made clear she would not hold an illegal vote.

However, Nicola Sturgeon could argue in those circumstances that the union was being held together by force of law rather than consent which would be a rotten look for the UK. That might lead to a rise in support for independence.

Gordon Brown writing in  the Guardian  is pursuing a different course.  He has discovered that the real choice before any referendum is far from binary and that there is a middle ground.  Sounds familiar?

To an outsider, the people in middle Scotland may appear to be nationalists. They will tell you that they feel more Scottish than British, that they prefer the Scottish parliament to the UK parliament and Nicola Sturgeon to Boris Johnson. In a choice between being Scottish or being British, most would opt for the former; and they will tell you that at elections they vote for the party they see as standing up for Scotland.

But they have a fundamental difference of view to the nationalists. Middle Scotland has not written a British dimension out of their lives. They don’t want to be forced to make the choice between being Scottish and British. They are best described as patriots who love our country, but not nationalists who see life in terms of a never-ending struggle between “us”, the Scots, and “them”, the rest of the UK.

The Britain middle Scotland connects with isn’t the Britain defined by ancient institutions or deference to them. The living symbol of unity is the NHS, which continues to be, for Scots, a British icon, despite the fact the healthcare is administered differently in each nation. The NHS speaks to feelings of empathy, solidarity and reciprocity – exactly the sentiments that underpin a desire to cooperate and share….

 While middle Scotland wants cooperation, it doesn’t think Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon share that aspiration. Only 23% of Scots agree that the Scottish and UK governments cooperate well. Of course Nicola Sturgeon won’t change – her life’s work is to break up the UK – but the inescapable duty of a UK prime minister should be to bring the different nations and regions of the UK together.

 His “muscular unionism” involves putting up more flags, bypassing the Scottish government and badging Scottish bridges and roads as gifts that come courtesy of the UK (as if there is nothing more to bridge-building than spending on bricks and mortar). It is Johnson’s attempt to show that Britishness can win a competition with Scottishness. When he says devolution is a “a disaster”, he may have thought he was attacking the SNP. In fact nearly 90% of Scots are proud of their devolved parliament, and he is at war with mainstream Scottish opinion. When he says there should be no referendum for 40 years, he is not just at odds with the SNP but with the majority of Scots, who certainly don’t want a referendum now but don’t think it right that he alone can rule it out for ever.

 Johnson may believe that he can be, at one and the same time, an English nationalist and save the union. The reality is that no prime minister can hold the UK together if at war with a large part of it. He must become the minister for the union and not just the minister for unionists, and the first step is to set up – as Keir Starmer has already done – an inquiry into the UK’s future, instructing it to find an alternative not just to separate nationalisms but to the poorly performing status quo.

Brown’s nostrum of a constitutional convention is replete with difficulty – like would nationalists of any stripe including the English be likely to agree a new formula for the Union when their aims are so divergent?  And no one yet has come up with a form of federalism that works for such an asymmetrical Union. Johnson may sit in out for as long as possible, then suddenly cry “bring it on” and rely on Project Fear. But would it work a second time? So far despite the kerfuffle over the SNP majority, Johnson and Sturgeon are actually in agreement to wait until the effects of the pandemic have been absorbed. But that is no more than a warring truce.