Thursday, December 22, 2016

The unionist media are in denial about it, but a second independence referendum moved even closer this week

As far as I can remember this has never happened before (which tells its own story), but it turns out that I owe a mainstream media journalist a comprehensive apology for taking him to task on Twitter a few months ago for what I took to be spin on behalf of the unionist establishment.  Not long after the EU referendum, Mark Mardell of the BBC claimed that the SNP were set to join the "forces of soft Brexit".  I retorted that this was a plainly ridiculous notion, because the SNP's stated aim was to keep Scotland within the European Union in line with how the country had just overwhelmingly voted.  But Mardell was completely right and I was completely wrong.  There's no two ways about it - Nicola Sturgeon has clearly modified her position somewhat, and the detailed plan she put forward the other day indicates a willingness to accept our enforced departure from the EU, albeit only if a great many extremely stringent conditions are met.

However, in spite of misjudging the trajectory a few months ago, I still feel extremely confident in saying this : the likes of Kenny "Devo or Death / Brexit or Bust" Farquharson and whoever it is that writes the Guardian editorials are deluding themselves when they imagine that there is a realistic chance we are heading for a compromise that will head off a second independence referendum.  Theresa May took only a few hours to reject Sturgeon's proposals out of hand, so to believe in the chance of a deal you must also believe that what we saw this week was merely some kind of way-station on the Scottish Government's journey towards accepting a semi-hard Brexit and departure from the single market, rather than a statement of Sturgeon's absolute bottom line.  The Greens (who have disorientated us all by reinventing themselves as the new indy fundamentalists) have demanded that it must be the latter, and I'm convinced that's how it will be.

I've never met Nicola Sturgeon (I've never even had a selfie taken with her, so I really am the lowest of the low), and therefore can't read her mind.  I've heard it said, as I'm sure we all have, that she's instinctively more cautious than Alex Salmond, although I also remember hearing it said in 2012 that she was actually much more bullish than Salmond about the all-or-nothing gambit of calling a single-question referendum on independence without a Devo Max option on the ballot paper.  Regardless of the truth about her temperament, though, the real reason why a second independence referendum now looks almost inevitable is that she has to take her party with her when she makes the final decision.  It's just a non-starter to imagine that the SNP rank-and-file are going to accept calling off the dogs on indy in return for departure from the single market, and no special status within Europe for Scotland - which is all that will be on offer from the UK government, barring a wildly improbable climbdown.  The only way I could imagine the membership signing up to that 'deal' would be if there is some kind of compensatory offer involving a massively beefed-up devolution settlement - but London seem to be showing zero interest in that idea as well.

The unionist media are, as is their custom, telling themselves precisely what they want to believe - that the SNP membership don't matter, and that Sturgeon will be guided solely by opinion poll numbers and a private acceptance of the economic importance of an entirely fictional concept known as "the UK single market".  It may be that it will continue to be possible to portray the opinion poll evidence as discouraging for Sturgeon over the coming months - Scottish polls are largely commissioned by anti-independence clients, after all, which means that the supplementary questions are often framed in a way that will produce the most negative answers.  But that will not be the determining factor on whether a referendum goes ahead.  Public opinion at the end of both the independence and Brexit referendums bore little resemblance to public opinion at the start of the campaigns.  It would be a brave unionist who felt sure that initial Yes support in the mid-to-high 40s will not prove to be a successful springboard to victory.  Which is a point well worth pondering - do the forces of unionism seem relaxed to you, in the way they would be if they really thought a referendum was unwinnable for Sturgeon?  No, they don't seem relaxed to me either.

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Theresa May seems to have an unconscious desire for a career in comedy.  Only two years ago, her party told Scots to vote No because it was supposedly the only way to keep Scotland in the European Union.  As a direct result of the electorate falling for that line and voting No, we are now on course to be forced out of the EU against our will.  And yet Ms May innocently says that there is still "no need or reason" to revisit the decision on independence.  It's a bit like someone saying to you "OK, I will marry you, but ONLY if you never, ever steal ANY of my chocolates EVER again", and you absolutely promise to go along with that, and then two months later you express bafflement about her decision to call the whole thing off while you're busy munching on her After Eights.