It is perhaps difficult to recall, as we watch the daily turbulence of the soap opera that is the Brexit negotiations, that four years ago this month, before anyone ever expected the nation to vote to leave the European Union, the future of our country was at stake when Scots took part in the historic referendum on independence. Back then everyone seemed to have a view on whether the Unite Kingdom would or should stay together. President Obama (remember him?) tweeted about the importance of Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom. Even the Queen commented that she hoped people would ‘think very carefully about the future’ before casting their vote
On 18 September 2014 – and on the highest turnout in any national poll or referendum since the Second World War – 45% of the population of Scotland voted to leave the United Kingdom. Had that vote gone differently we would by now, almost certainly, have seen two new states established: Scotland, and what was inelegantly called the ‘Rest of the United Kingdom’ or RUK. The 1707 Treaty of Union would have been overturned. Scotland would have become again, an independent nation state, separate from the remainder of the United Kingdom.
As we approach the denouement of the Brexit negotiations, it is not unreasonable to consider circumstances in which there might be a second referendum on Scottish independence. When could that happen? What might be the result?
The current Scottish Government has operated under the devolution framework introduced some 20 years ago by Tony Blair and agreed overwhelmingly by the Scottish people in a referendum in September 1997. Under these arrangements, the devolved government has powers over several significant areas; for example, education, health, justice and transport. These powers of the current Scottish Government and Parliament are far more widespread than those previously enjoyed by the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Scottish Office, which was wholly accountable to the UK Parliament. But the powers do not extend to so-called reserved areas – for example, the macro economy, North Sea oil and gas, foreign affairs and defence. These remain under the control of Westminster.
Since devolution, the Holyrood Parliament has voted for more differences between UK and Scottish policies: in long-term social care for the elderly, in university tuition fees, free prescriptions, a lower drink-driving limit, minimum alcohol pricing and so on. Because Scots want it that way. That is the whole point of devolution. It has led to Holyrood doing things differently because Scots want them to be different.
But does that mean the march of history is towards independence? Is a second referendum on independence, resulting in a Yes vote the second time round, inevitable?
The SNP will seek to choose the time and place carefully for any second referendum. Nicola Sturgeon is a clever and long-term politician. From her point of view, she will wish to avoid at all costs the Quebec outcome where, in 1995, that province of Canada held its second referendum on independence some 15 years after the first vote. The separatists failed to gain Quebec independence by only 1% and independence is now off the agenda for good.
Nicola Sturgeon will want to win the next Holyrood elections in 2021 – not a given by any stretch of the imagination – and use that ballot as a platform to explore holding a further referendum on independence in, say, 2023. In a post-Brexit Britain, depending on the economic and political climate then prevailing, she might just win and overturn the 2014 result. It is certainly a possibility.
Defending the union
What, if anything, can the UK Government do to avoid this? Some three years ago, I argued that the time for incremental approaches to Scottish devolution was over. I argued that the time was ripe to “get ahead of the curve” and help to secure the union for the long term. I argued that the time was ripe to offer a new constitutional settlement to Scotland. I still believe that. Call it what you will: full fiscal autonomy, devo max plus or, in the language of Gladstone: home rule for Scotland within the United Kingdom. This would build on the existing devolution settlement and give the Scots control over their own destiny, yet within the framework of the monarchy, the United Kingdom’s defence and foreign policy and an overall shared macroeconomic framework. Such a settlement would be popular with the Scottish people. All the opinion polls said that in 2014. They still do.
I also argued that, in the words of Peter Hennessy, those of us who believe in the Union need to find the language and the symbols to celebrate the strength and value of Scotland remaining within the Union. From the Queen to the NHS. From the BBC to the UK passport. These are some of the symbols that capture the very essence of the union with Scotland and the Scottish people. It is incumbent on those politicians who believe in them to make a long-term commitment to the Union and to remember just what a close-run thing was the referendum of 2014.
Alun Evans is the Chief Executive of the British Academy. He served as Director of the Scotland Office from 2012 to 2015