AFTER THE EU REFERENDUM, Nicola Sturgeon demanded that Scotland be allowed to remain in the EU because the vote in Scotland in favour of doing so was 62:38 – although it was a UK-wide referendum. Neither the UK government nor the EU Commission regarded that as a possibility. So Ms Sturgeon tried another tack: Scotland should be able to remain in the single market, even if the UK as a whole left it. Few at home and abroad, including some of her own advisers, have regarded that as a workable option.
Undeterred, Ms Sturgeon toured the capitals of Europe trying to persuade European governments of her case. European leaders said they would consider Scotland for EU or single market membership, but only once it had become a separate state. What this episode has done is to show pro-Union Scots what might be possible in the event of a new Scottish referendum producing a vote for secession from the UK.
It is clear that Scotland is a deeply divided country. This is the result of a long and bitter referendum campaign in 2012-14. There is palpable hatred on both sides of the divide that will take years, or perhaps decades, to heal. One cybernat has even written as follows:
If you hate the SNP if you hate Indy2… can I suggest something I think might be fair… …stop taking the benefits offered through this current government… and do what other unionist have to do… don’t take free hospital care... free prescriptions... pay your bus fare... pay tolls when you use a bridge... we’ll put a box there for you... pay for your kids uni fees... don’t let your kids have school dinners... don’t take any subsidies if your unemployed… that way … you wouldn’t sound like such a bloody hypocrite!!!!! [sic]
We should note the implication that the SNP has taken over the state. This is to mistake the institutions of the state for party political organs. The Bolshevik Party took over the Russian state after 1917. It isn’t the happiest of examples to follow. This kind of attitude – that party and state are indistinguishable from each other – and this kind of vilification of people who do not support the SNP – not merely of critics but of ordinary voters – does nothing to heal the divisions caused by the referendum. Indeed, it appears that attitudes on both sides are hardening.
Let us suppose that the SNP gets its way and calls another referendum. Let us further suppose that the result is a narrow majority in favour of Scotland leaving the UK. The majority of that majority would be concentrated in certain areas – particularly in Glasgow and its surrounding districts and in Dundee. There would undoubtedly be a pro-union majority in other areas – notably Orkney and Shetland, the Borders, and probably Edinburgh, Aberdeen and the eastern seaboard. However much some sparsely populated areas might want to remain in the UK, they would carry little weight against the electoral might of Greater Glasgow. Yet the last thing they would want would be to be ‘dragged out of the UK against their will’, to borrow a phrase.
Orkney and Shetland might refuse point black to join an iScotland. It would undoubtedly be open to the areas that had voted strongly (55-60 per cent and over, say) against separation to request that they be able to remain within the UK. This is the prospect that Ms Sturgeon has opened up with her demand for a separate settlement of the EU issue for Scotland.
The SNP would, of course, oppose such a course of action, claiming that its winning vote applied to the whole of Scotland – just as the winning Leave vote applied to the whole of the UK. But the UK government might be more sympathetic to Scottish remainers. Ms Sturgeon has, after all, established a precedent for demanding that areas voting differently from the whole should be allowed to opt out.
The result? The SNP would have succeeded in breaking up a country – just not the one they had intended to break up.
Jill Stephenson is Emeritus Professor of Modern German History at the University of Edinburgh