THERE CAN only be one reason the SNP can justify demanding a second independence referendum and that is to demonstrate that there has been a material change in the circumstances of Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Before we consider if there has been a material change or not, we first must understand why such a reason has become the defining issue upon which Nicola Sturgeon is seeking to justify her demand for a second referendum between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019.
After the last referendum there was much discussion amongst those who had supported the Yes campaign about how and when they could seek to have another referendum. Although understandably deflated by their defeat, many were still encouraged by the growth in their movement and the response that came after the votes had been counted and the No campaign had won.
Rather than curl up and hide under their downies, tens of thousands of Yes supporters joined the SNP, Greens and radical socialist parties. I personally know some people who did this.
Political leaders resolved that such expressions of commitment should not be wasted but instead could be nurtured so that come the day when there was another chance to have a vote they would be starting from a higher level and with a bigger base of committed supporters than before. That meant it was necessary to tell people they would be required again by giving them a goal to work to while at the same time placing the SNP firmly in charge of when to trigger a serious campaign.
After all, the initiation of a further referendum could not be left in the hands of some hotheads or the mob rule of a conference – it was understood that if independence was rejected a second time it would put back the cause of independence for a generation and cost many politicians their careers.
So it was agreed by the Yes board and repeated by SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon on many occasions, in interviews and speeches, that unless there was a change in material circumstances there would only be another referendum if there was a consistent and clear majority of the Scottish electorate in favour of independence. This was later briefed as meaning independence having a 60/40 lead in the polls for a period of six months.
Everyone on the nationalist movement appeared happy with this approach. It went down well at the SNP conference, presenting the party as graceful losers with a just cause that they could continue to campaign on, returning to a referendum later. After all, there was a general election to win in 2015 and a Holyrood election a year later. Rather than offer an outright commitment to a referendum in the party election manifestoes, reference was limited to there being a requirement for a change in material circumstances before a referendum would be held.
That is the background to the SNP’s process of justifying its decision. Fast forward to Spring of 2017 and Nicola Sturgeon has now announced she will push the legislation for a second independence referendum based upon the allegation that there has indeed been a “material change in circumstances” – because Scotland voted to stay in the European Union while the UK as a whole voted to leave.
But has there been a material change in circumstances?
The answer is No, for the circumstances that prevailed when the 2014 referendum was held were that the likelihood of the UK leaving the EU was a real and material possibility. Let us remind ourselves of those circumstances.
In his well publicised Bloomberg speech of January 2013 David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership if he were to command a majority in the 2015 – that was eighteen months before the Scottish independence referendum.
Then, only five months later in June, still more than a year before the independence referendum, the Conservatives published a Referendum Bill to emphasise their commitment to giving the British people a say on EU membership. It passed its first and second readings in the House of Commons but was stopped in the House of Lords because the Liberal Democrats refused to support it (even though they too had been demanding a referendum on EU membership).
All of these “circumstances” attracted a great deal of public comment and debate.
It should therefore have been obvious to every Scottish man, woman and the proverbial dog in the street that there could be an EU membership referendum if Scotland stayed in the UK, and that could mean Scotland ending up outside the EU. It was a known risk and people had to take account of it when they came to vote in the independence referendum.
Indeed the SNP did its level best to ensure everyone knew of this “circumstance”, including a section about it in the SNP Government’s own White Paper (P210) as one of the consequences of Scotland staying in the UK and shouting about it from the rooftops at every available opportunity. Scotland then voted to stay in the UK in a turn out of 84.6% by 2.0 million votes to 1.1 million.
When the Conservative’s general election victory arrived in June it was duly announced that the promised referendum would take place and that it would be a UK-wide decision with no veto for any city such as London or nation such as Scotland. The circumstance that we had known could materialise had prevailed. Then, not to anyone’s surprise, when the votes were counted Scotland’s and Northern Ireland’s electorates voted for the UK to stay in the EU while those of Wales and England voted to leave. When the votes were added together the leavers had it.
All of these potential outcomes had been known on the day of the September 2014 independence referendum, meaning there has been no material change of circumstance – the EU referendum was always probable and the outcome of Brexit always possible.
The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon can project her own spin on to the referendum result, using phrases such as Scotland being “dragged” out of the EU to whip up sentiment for her divisive case, but the reality is that Scots chose the United Kingdom in full possession of the facts of what might happen down the road.
This abuse of the truth in the name of pursuing her goal is nothing new for Nicola Sturgeon; it was she who told us that the independence referendum was a “once in a generation opportunity” and then went further by calling it a “once in a lifetime chance”. There is no shortage of photos of Nicola Sturgeon with placards that proclaim this passive aggressive blackmail. If she pushes forward demands for a second referendum she will have lied to us all – nationalists, unionists and agnostics – and she will be using a pretext that is itself a lie.
Nicola Sturgeon took a gamble. She thought that she could use the Brexit vote to whip-up anti-UK sentiment that would give her the lead in the polls she had sworn was required to have a second referendum. She kept pressing the big red button but the grievance machine just would not fire up. Rather than improve, the polls showed a fall in support for a second vote.
Scotland does not believe leaving the EU is a good enough reason to hold another referendum and shows no sign of believing that it is a reason to leave the UK. Could it be that enough people see through Nicola Sturgeon’s bitter confection and if forced to vote again will punish her for her duplicity?
An earlier version of this article first appeared in ThinkScotland.org