No 10 have Sturgeon trapped – the choices for voters in Indyref2 will be less than appetising.
Nicola Sturgeon did a good job of appearing to be in control immediately after the Brexit vote, and we are assured that the First Minister is not bluffing over another referendum. But despite assurance from Bute House, Downing Street will be quite sure that Sturgeon has fallen into the same trap as David Cameron.
As things stand, Sturgeon’s calling of another independence referendum to please the SNP’s hardcore will lead to defeat and the end of the Scottish Independence question, and therefore the raison d’être of the SNP. A third referendum following a defeat is unthinkable – voters in Scotland don’t even want a second.
The SNP’s legislative vacuum has been exposed and joins doubts over their competence on education, threatening to further harden suspicions amongst the Scottish electorate that, for all their rhetoric about getting on with the day job, nothing but independence will do. They have already missed an opportunity to show overwhelming competence in Scotland despite sharing a playing field, for so long, with the car crash that is Scottish Labour.
Even some Union-supporting pundits north of the border are admitting they see Brexit as inflicting substantial damage to the idea that, in fact, the people of the constituent parts of the UK are far more alike than Scottish nationalists would ever admit. Emergent English nationalism has made a rupture. From the EU perspective, in 2014 Better Together’s campaign was buttressed by fears Scotland would not be able to re-enter the EU, which were exacerbated by Spanish officials who had their own domestic politics to think about.
Those two themes will shape the argument in Indyref2. Sturgeon will again emphasise that England and Wales have changed irrevocably – the UK we voted to stay in has fundamentally changed. Scotland’s place in the EU will be talked up, despite dire economic data suggesting the country shouldn’t even qualify for membership with a deficit of £15bn. Spanish officials daring to lend opinions will be summarily discredited.
Yet those in Downing Street will back themselves to win in the end – because Scottish voters, along with the half million English voters in Scotland, will be assured by Better Together 2 that Scottish independence combined with a Brexited UK really means a hard border this time. With it, all the nightmarish passport-checking and bureaucracy your imagination could possibly conjure – border guards at Berwick, no nipping down to Newcastle and gridlock at Gretna.
The second Better Together campaign will deploy another argument intended to match the potency of George Osborne’s 2014 bombshell warning regarding Scotland’s use of the pound. Scottish voters will simply be asked whether they want to reject largest trading partner England in order that they may be allowed to re-enter the EU.
In the end, voters in Scotland would be asked to choose one monstrous maelstrom of uncertainties over another, and therefore the status quo will prevail as it did just over two years ago.
When Sturgeon reflects on what might have been following the referendum she had to hold to satisfy her party, surely she’ll reflect on whether the SNP should have spent more time being seen to do the day-job.
By Duncan Chisholm