My father ran a department of the European Parliament in the 1970s and early 80s. As a result I grew up in Luxembourg, in a strange and huge house. One of the interesting aspects of this childhood was observing, through infant’s eyes, the strange world around me, meeting fairly important people in my own home. My mother enjoyed entertaining and often threw dinner parties, events that took place in the dining area of our living room, a place suddenly transformed into a magical kingdom of candlelight, of shimmering silver and glass. One of my father’s frequent guests was Winnie Ewing, Scotland’s only separatist Member of the European Parliament. She was a lovely woman, and expert at massaging the egos of little boys who crept downstairs to see the unfolding drama. She was a very forceful woman too, full of intoxicating and dramatic energy. She announced to all who would listen, and there were none who could not, that her dream was for the Scottish flag to one day hang outside the United Nations building in New York. She insisted that the ancient Scottish parliament would be reborn and take its place in the hall above the Signet Library on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
One evening we travelled as a family, by train, to Strasbourg, to a reception at her flat. She sang ballads and, being but a child, I covered my ears and pretended to howl. Yet something of her passion and drive for Scottish independence lit the fires of my imagination. Imagine what it would be like, for a free and independent Scotland to rise again, to become a nation, I thought. In the mid-1970s this was pure fantasy, along with the idea that two men could marry, the Iron Curtain might fall or that one day we would send electronic messages. Scotland was under direct rule from Westminster. There were but two SNP members of Parliament. There was no significant support for independence. It was a wistful dream. Against the backdrop of an ex-pat childhood, I struggled to work out who I was and where I belonged. I was aware I came from a Scottish family, but that I had been born in England. And now lived in Luxembourg. I was a Euro-Scottish-British hybrid. Yet the dream of a Scottish flag outside the United Nations glowed.
In 2014 the people of Scotland rejected independence in a referendum, 45/55. I was partly disappointed and partly relieved. Then came Brexit. It threw my world in the air, the shock turning into grief-like depression. Within a short time the thorny question was back on the agenda, in an abstract form. “It will never happen,” we are told again and again. And a thousand reasons are given. Yet I am convinced that within my lifetime, barring any sudden and fatal events, I will see the blue and white Saltire fluttering by the Hudson, between Saudi Arabia and Senegal. And I want to tell you why I think this. My theory is that of the 5% gossamer thread, an almost invisible sliver of Unionism that binds Scotland to the United Kingdom and which will break soundlessly with a single puff of air.
45% of Scots voted Yes in 2014. I am certain that nearly all of that 45% will do so again. They voted yes despite Operation Fear. They voted yes when they were warned that Scotland would be out of Europe and out of the Pound, that banks would leave and armed guards be stationed on a hard border. 55% voted no, unconvinced that Scotland would be viable, that the economy would scarcely withstand the break. They were persuaded by last minute offers of greater devolution and appeals to loyalty and sentiment.
After Brexit support for independence rose a bit, then fell back. Opinion polls, for what they are worth, are few and far between, downplayed and seized upon as evidence for lack of appetite. They currently indicate support for independence at around the 47% mark. So what would it take to push that over the 50% mark, to say 55%?
In 2014 there had been no Brexit, there was a coalition government in Westminster and a viable opposition with a real chance of beating the government. The economy was growing and constitutional change was an uphill battle.
How much has changed since then. Let us explore some of those factors and see how they might impact on a future Indyref. Since the 2014 referendum was lost…
- 120,000 Scots are now card carrying members of the SNP. It is the second largest party in terms of membership in the whole of the UK and by far the biggest in Scotland. The Green Party in Scotland is also pro-Independence. There are rumors of Scottish Labour MSPs defecting, hopeless of finding a voice in the UK.
- The threat of leaving the EU via Independence is now reversed. Economically conservative and risk-averse Scots now see independence through a different prism.
- Nearly all Scottish Westminster seats are held by the SNP.
- The UK government has underlined its commitment to the Common Travel Area with Ireland, post-Brexit. So we now know there can be no hard border with Scotland by precedent. This is significant too as much of Scotland’s trade will of course be with the UK post-independence.
- The SNP is likely to ditch the non-starter of sharing the Pound and will instead introduce a Scottish currency. The Bank of England itself has made clear that Scotland would therefore not be liable for the National Debt for this reason.
- There are no more devolved powers that can be offered as an incentive to stay as was done at the eleventh hour in 2014.
- Oil prices are low. They are going to rise at some point in the future.
- Scotland is at risk of losing significant funding from the EU, money unlikely to be replaced by Westminster. This will lead to economic hardship and resentment and a renewed desire to stay in the Single Market.
- The Scottish economy is more vulnerable to a hard Brexit than much of England, being based on manufacturing, financial services and agriculture. It will lead to a feeling of having little to lose.
- In the event of a general election, the hard right UK Conservative government stands to gain a thumping majority, snuffing out all hope that the UK as a whole will move to the left, and that Scottish Labour MPs will ever make a difference. Such governance, with its inbuilt and inherent mistrust and contempt for Scotland seldom bodes well for Anglo-Scottish relations. It is the politics of the Poll Tax and Trident all over again.
- A contemptuous and arrogant attitude is creeping into the English media. It will antagonise Scottish voters who are told they “will be leaving” with the rest of the UK.
- A fresh referendum is likely to take place in or around 2018, by which time four years worth of young 16-18 year old voters will have come of age, eligible to vote for the first time, and presented with a choice of independence or Brexit. Young voters are much more pro-Independence and their numbers will grow year by year.
- Many EU citizens will be allowed to vote, likewise faced with a choice of independence in their new home, or Brexit and an uncertain future. EU citizens in the rest of the UK increasingly see Scotland as a safer haven and are moving there.
- Many of the 55% who voted no in 2014 feel a sense of betrayal. Meanwhile the separatism of the 45% is hardening.
- And many of 55% who had cold feet last time have seen the precedent of voting for massive change in the EU referendum, and feel emboldened.
- When the 2014 referendum was first presented it had support of less than 30%, a figure the SNP and Yes Campaign managed to increase through hard work and perseverance. This time Yes is starting from the point of 45%-48%.
- A last minute swing against independence was supported by English politicians in 2o14, keen to preserve the Union. That support is waning in England, with Scotland being seen as an obstacle to Brexit. It is unlikely to be so fulsome or warm next time.
- Conversely international pressure was previously hostile to Scottish independence, a trend likely to be flipped on its head after Brexit.
All that is needed is a 5-10% swing for Scotland to achieve independence in a future referendum and it is clear that at least some of the factors above will play their part. Scots are referendum-weary. They did not want this choice again, not for a while and therefore their support and appetite are subdued. But Brexit, especially a hard version of it is forcing events somewhat. And soon a choice must be made, a path chosen.
I believe that history indicates the future. Countries move towards independence slowly, gradually increasing in confidence. It is often fuelled by the arrogance and blindness of the controlling power, as happened in Ireland, resulting in a hardening of public opinion and sense of grievance. Sometimes major events act as a catalyst, such as a war or economic crash, an assassination or other seismic event that breaks the inertia. Or, like a loveless marriage, the conjoined nations slowly diverge until an insurmountable chasm has opened up. Scotland will be reborn as a free country with a sigh and a whisper, not in the sulphurous smoke or cordite as was Ireland. And it will happen in my lifetime.