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Can Sarwar convince Scots to stay?

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar poses in front of his party's election bus, in Glasgow - Credit: Getty Images

For those dreading a return to the pitched battles of IndyRef1, the Scottish Labour leader may offer the best hope

There are two schools of thought in Scotland about the conduct of the 2014 independence referendum. One is that it was a festival of democracy, a carnival of marches, song, poetry and political awakening.

The other is that it was a brutal and divisive slog that pitted friend against friend, family member against family member, and that left deep and lasting wounds.

The first view belongs to those in the Yes movement, for whom the campaign was an adrenalised charge into the future and away from Westminster Tory rule, bolstered by camaraderie, optimism and moral purpose. The second is more common among No voters, who were subjected to scorn and abuse, accused of being somehow less than fully Scottish, and who, as the polls narrowed, unexpectedly found themselves on the brink of losing their country.

This difference is one reason the prospect of an imminent referendum rerun is met with gloom by Unionists. The fear that those bitter animosities could be so quickly rekindled, and that they would have to defend a Brexit Britain run by Boris Johnson – in a nation that voted 62-38 for Remain and that has little time for the prime minister – fills no one, not even Scottish Conservatives, with enthusiasm.

Another reason is of course that they might well lose. In 2014 the Yes side started well behind, polls putting them on around 35%, and managed to claw their way to 45% on referendum day. Those numbers belong to a different era. For much of the past year support for independence has polled above 50% – as high as 58% in one survey. It has recently fallen back a bit, to a 50/50 split, but the next referendum will be conducted in a very different psephological climate to the first.

A different political climate, too. The SNP are now entrenched as the establishment. Nicola Sturgeon is by some distance Scotland’s dominant politician, popular with and trusted by much of the electorate (and not just Nationalists), and is largely seen as having had a good Covid pandemic. The SNP has been in power at Holyrood for 14 years and is cruising towards a fourth consecutive term. It has used its long spell in government to pack civic and cultural life and organisations with sympathisers. When it comes to “indyref2”, as it’s widely known, it wouldn’t be foolish to put your money on this first minister succeeding where her predecessor Alex Salmond failed.

This is why the forthcoming Holyrood election, to be held on May 6, matters not just for Scotland but for the future of the UK. The SNP is at least 20 points ahead of the opposition and will win the election, the only unknown being whether it can do so with an overall majority, achieved either under its own steam or in partnership with pro-independence Green MSPs.

Then there’s Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party, set up following his spectacular falling out with Sturgeon over her handling of sexual misconduct allegations against him, which is asking Scots for their second, regional vote in the two-vote Holyrood electoral system. Salmond claims this would establish a pro-independence ‘supermajority’ in the Scottish parliament, and strengthen Sturgeon’s hand in negotiations with Boris Johnson.

If that overall majority is achieved, in whatever form, Sturgeon will with some cause claim a mandate for a second referendum, and demand that Westminster passes the Section 30 order required for Holyrood to hold one. The first minister insists she wants a plebiscite within the first half of the next parliament, which means by late 2023.

Unionist voters and politicians are split on how best to tackle this threat. There are some who think Johnson should force a snap referendum within the next year, while the polls remain evenly divided. The Nationalists would prefer support for independence to be around 60%, building in a cushion of safety, before calling a vote.

They know that a second defeat in less than a decade would be catastrophic for the Yes movement, and put the issue on the backburner for years, perhaps even permanently. Such was the experience in Quebec when it held two independence referendums in quick succession in the 1990s.

Sceptical Unionists argue instead for delay. They worry that, confronted with what could be a last opportunity to break away from the UK, the Scottish electorate would grab it, inspired by the “take back control” slogan and sentiment successfully deployed by the Leave campaign during the Brexit debate. Their wish is for Johnson, who has said he has no intention of allowing a referendum, to stick to his guns.

In the meantime, voters must try to make sense of the conflicting and often complex messages and arguments emerging from the politicians. Pro-Union campaigners warn that the economic risks of independence are as real now as they were in 2014, and in some cases greater – Scotland’s deficit in 2019-20 was estimated at £15bn, or 8.6% of its GDP, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies believes Covid spending could push that figure up to 26-28% of GDP in the next few years.

Around two-thirds of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the UK, and with the SNP determined that an independent Scotland would rejoin the EU there would be a new and potentially expensive trade border at Berwick. Big questions about what currency the new state would use, and how this might impact on personal finances such as mortgages and pensions, as well as its ability to fund its borrowing and debts at affordable levels, have still to be answered.

On the other hand, throughout the past year of Covid and lockdown Scots have watched Sturgeon lead them through a global calamity. She has hosted live daily TV briefings and made major decisions and announcements affecting their life and liberty, while much of Boris Johnson’s activity has been confined to England.

For some ‘indycurious’ voters, this has been a teasing taste of what independence might feel like. It is widely felt that Sturgeon’s performance has outstripped the prime minister’s, even if the data around the pandemic is broadly similar.

Unionist campaigners argue instead that the last 12 months have shown Scotland currently has the best of both worlds – an NHS run from Edinburgh rather than London, but with economic support coming from deep-pocketed Westminster, in the shape of furlough and emergency public-service spending. This, they say, proves that devolution works.

But while independence supporters have the figurehead of Sturgeon to rally around, part of the problem facing the pro-UK side is that there’s no obvious contender to lead their cause. In 2014 former chancellor Alistair Darling was in charge of the Better Together campaign, but his time in the frontline has passed. Ruth Davidson’s decision to quit as Scottish Conservative leader, stand down from Holyrood at this election and join the House of Lords, has diminished her credibility. The prime minister is seen as an entitled and unreliable careerist.

The burden may end up falling on the shoulders of Anas Sarwar, the new, young, fresh-faced leader of Scottish Labour. The party that for many decades dominated Scottish politics has fallen on hard times over the past decade, sinking to third place at Holyrood behind the hated Tories, losing all but one of its MPs at Westminster and all of its Scottish MEPs. However Sarwar, a bright, upbeat and forceful presence, is having a good election campaign.

His message – that Scotland should be focusing on the recovery from Covid rather than endlessly arguing about independence – is attracting praise from some unlikely corners. In a nation that has spent decades fixating on the constitution Sarwar’s may be wishful thinking. But for many people, anything that might avoids a return to the grim pitched battle of 2014 has to be worth a shot.

Chris Deerin is director of the think tank Reform Scotland

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