With Brexit happening against Scotland’s will, under a Tory Government Scotland did not elect, what does the next few years look like for Scotland?
The General Election saw a resounding endorsement of the SNP across Scotland. They won most of the country’s seats and no other party really managed to resist that tide.
The General Election also saw a resounding illustration of the case for independence. It delivered a largely English Tory government that Scots didn’t vote for, and delivers Brexit, which Scots voted against in every single constituency in 2016.
So with upcoming Edinburgh elections likely to see the SNP continue as by far the largest party, the next few years in Scotland are likely to be shaped by the SNP.
Politics shaped by the SNP will focus on independence. Brexit not only gives legitimacy to calls for a new referendum on independence (by changing the constitutional situation), but it also makes for a more compelling case.
The SNP have played this angle well, saying that Scotland is being forced out of Europe against its will. It has also contrasted special arrangements proposed for Northern Ireland with the UK’s decision to completely ignore Scotland when it asks for similar.
This makes the counter-case particularly tricky right now, which may be why many pro-union arguments at present amount to little more than “but independence is too hard”. We will come to the case for Union shortly. First, Westminster.
Refusing a Referendum
It is hard to think of a more futile move in modern politics than for a central state to refuse a vote.
Refusing a vote can only go two ways. One is that the vote will be held without permission – as the Catalans chose to do. The other just strengthens long term resentment towards the undemocratic central state. Around the world, neither works out well.
This is, however, the path Johnson has set upon. So now he needs an explanation for it to at least mitigate the resentment a bit. The explanation against holding a referendum has so far been weak. It has either been that Brexit is such a big change that the UK needs stability for a while, or that Brexit is not very big and so nothing has changed since the 2014 referendum.
Which in combination demonstrate their own absurdity.
The framing of Scottish politics over the coming few years, and Scotland’s ultimate future, will be determined by how well Unionists and Independents attract remainers.
While remainers have no direct immediate outlet in England, and so will likely fracture in different directions, in Scotland there is a clear path back to the EU – Scottish independence.
Both Scottish independence and remain are largely internationalist and supported by people who believe in what broadly gets labelled “progressive politics”. So this is a natural fit.
But while the SNP will play to that alignment, other parties seeking to support the Union must surely play to the Remain desire to be part of something bigger than one country – in this case, the Union.
The Case for the Union
All too often, perhaps because other parties than the SNP are led from Westminster, the case for the Union is not well made. That may change in the next five years.
Greater recognition that this is a Scot v Scot debate, not an English one, may help. Scots in favour of the Union know better than the English that the present case is losing. Independence has, after all, gone from a punchline to a serious prospect in just half a lifetime.
For an example of a weak case for the Union, take oil and gas. 30,000 people work in oil extraction in Scotland – out of over 2million workers – so not a huge number. And oil running out happens to Scotland whether in or out of the Union. So fixation on oil running out is not relevant to most Scots who know their country better than the English, yet it is often used to decry independence.
Scots do, however, go to English universities and do business in English cities. If other parties want to advance the case for Union, this cultural and business union is likely to become a bigger narrative as a positive case. And a positive case for the Union deserves to be heard, instead of just claiming independence is too hard.
The Tory Grenade
This all leaves a rather unappetising aspect in the shape of one party in particular. Very few Tories are Scottish – and the Tories are now holding the baby known as Brexit.
With no meaningful prospect of success in Scottish elections, the Tories may deal with Scotland as they think the English would demand – because English voters matter more to them than Scottish voters.
There is almost no prospect of the Tories seeking to meet the SNP half way, or trying to find a new path for Scotland within the Union if that proves true. Instead, it will likely take a more belligerent approach by simply ignoring Scotland and playing to English ideas about rebellious Scots.
If so, other parties will need to counter growing resentment at the status quo as the UK government throws verbal and policy grenades at Scotland.