The UK voted to leave the European Union around 9 months ago and since the result became clear to the whole country the SNP have said that the referendum vote was a “material change in circumstances” from 2014 and thus could be used to justify another referendum on independence. I happen to agree that this is true but I have also been cautious when it comes to the issue of independence. As someone who would like to see Scotland as a self-governing nation-state I was wary of rushing into another vote as failure a second time around would take the issue off the table. The SNP have been walking the line between caution and agitating for another plebiscite, and evidently Westminster is taking note.
During Scottish Questions in the House of Commons, Scottish Secretary David Mundell was asked by Angus Robertson, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, about agriculture and fisheries. In his response, Mundell said: “What I can give the right honourable gentleman is an absolute guarantee that after the UK leaves the EU the Scottish Parliament and Scottish ministers will have more powers than they have today”. This statement by the Secretary of State is important because it is public statement of intent that the government can now be held to, and it appears to be the first time that the government have sought to head off post-Brexit secessionist feeling.
This announcement by Mundell is in response to the growing hostility towards Westminster north of the border. Nicola Sturgeon has been keen to talk about how Brexit throws up many constitutional questions regarding devolution, especially given that Scotland voted in a way that was contrary to the UK as a whole. The Tories are trying to co-opt this discussion to portray Brexit as an opportunity for Scotland to have more powers, but I don’t believe this will wash.
Firstly, in regards to the question of another referendum, the Tories have repeatedly said they will not allow for another independence vote. Even if the Tories do give Holyrood more powers, the fact that the people of Scotland will be denied the right to decide their own constitutional future seems like a difficult pill to swallow. I would argue that human beings, on some level, want to be self-governing. This can manifest itself in lots of different ways, including having the freedom to do as they please wherever possible.
However, another expression of the desire to be autonomous is deciding how one wants to be governed. This isn’t simply voting on which bunch of bastards makes laws but also what political community you identify with. Giving Scotland powers in many areas but withholding the right to have another referendum treats the country as if they are children. They have the right to decide what to do in some areas, but all the serious decisions are out of their hands. I’m not Scottish but I find this concept to be thoroughly insulting.
The second way in which I believe the Tories’ attempt to steer this conversation will not go over well is the long-standing legacy of the party. Although the Scottish Conservatives have become more popular in recent years, largely because of the charismatic leadership of Ruth Davidson, there is still widespread distrust of the Tories. At the 2016 Holyrood elections, the Tories won 31 seats. This is the best they have ever done but the legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership has meant that resentment over a number of different issues has increased support for anti-Tory parties.
Any conference of the SNP, Scottish Labour, or the Scottish Greens, will at some point involve people insulting the heartlessness of the Tories. The animosity towards the party, especially those in Westminster, is not difficult to find. Indeed when the 2014 independence referendum campaign was rumbling along, a day wouldn’t go past without Alex Salmond correctly making the point that Scotland would often be ruled by Tory governments that they didn’t vote for.
How does this relate to Brexit? If the Tories say Scotland will have more powers, many people instinctively don’t believe them. Consequently, this gives pro-independence parties the chance to exploit this mistrust to argue in favour of secession. The impact of Tory governments on Scotland must be kept in peoples’ minds because if the Conservative Party’s image is rehabilitated an impactful argument for independence will be lost.
To conclude, if the Tories genuinely want to give Scotland more powers after Brexit I have no problem with that, but the response from pro-secessionist parties is simple. They should turn to the Scottish people and say that ‘the Tories forced us out of Europe against are wills and are denying us the right to make up our own minds over independence’. As the Brexit negotiations go on, and Theresa May’s right-wing positions are revealed in more detail, Scottish policy-makers need to be vigilant so that the Westminster Tories are characterised as hostile to Scotland.
Brexit can be the catalyst for independence, but only if public opinion is carefully managed. The pro-independence movement is organising to learn from the mistakes of 2014 as we speak but without successfully weaponising Brexit the 6-point swing required to achieve secession will be allusive. The Tories cannot be allowed to rehabilitate their image as this would continue Westminster rule for the foreseeable future.