“It has never been hard to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine,” declared PG Wodehouse.
By making the unreasonable demand for a referendum on Scottish independence before the Brexit process had been completed, Nicola Sturgeon relied upon the UK Government refusing it and allowing the scope for a grievance to nurture. Despite this risk, the demand has indeed been given an emphatic rejection.
Yesterday Theresa May declared:
“Nothing is more important to me than seeing this United Kingdom thrive. Our precious union of nations is the most successful this world has ever seen.
“We’ve been together – we’ve been joined together as one country – for over 300 years. We’ve worked together, we’ve prospered together, we’ve fought wars together. And we have a bright future, there’s a bright future for us all.
“That’s why as we embark on the process of negotiating a new relationship, a future relationship with the European Union, I’m going to be fighting for every person, every family, every business across the whole of the United Kingdom. That’s my focus. And I think it should be the focus of us all.
“So, when the SNP say it’s the time to start talking about a second independence referendum, I say that, just at this point, all our energies should be focused on negations with the European Union about our future relationship. To be talking about an independence referendum would, I think, make it more difficult to get the right deal for Scotland and the right deal for the UK.
“I think it wouldn’t be fair to the people of Scotland because they’d be asked to make a crucial decision without the necessary information – without knowing the future partnership or what the alternative of an independent Scotland would look like.
“I think right now we should be focusing all our energy in getting the right deal for the UK and Scotland …. That’s my job as Prime Minister.
“Right now we should working together, not pulling apart. We should be working together to get that right deal for Scotland, that right deal for the UK – that’s my job as Prime Minister so, for that reason, I say to the SNP: now is not the time.”
“I’m responding to the proposal that’s been put forward by the First Minister. I say now is not the time and I say that because all our energies should be going into negotiations with the European Union.
“To make sure we get the right deal; the right deal across the United Kingdom and for Scotland. To look at this proposal at this time wouldn’t be fair.”
This rejection is both politically astute and right in principle. It terms of Scottish opinion, May is closer to Sturgeon when it comes to the scheduling of another referendum. The latest poll I can see on the matter (taken by BMG for the Herald earlier this week) asked if there should be another referendum “held prior to the Brexit negotiations being concluded” 39 per cent said Yes while 49 per cent said No.
The pretext for rushing the vote is that if Scotland voted for independence before Brexit was completed then Scotland would be able to remain a member of the European Union. This is nonsense. The EU has made clear that Scotland would have to apply for membership after it had left the UK – that it would have no automatic right and that it would have to join the Euro.
By waiting for the conclusion of Brexit it will be possible to understand, as the Prime Minister put it, what the choice of staying in the United Kingdom, will look like.
Some would prefer May to be more emphatic and rule out another referendum altogether. After all, in 2013 Nicola Sturgeon said:
“We’ve made very clear our belief that constitutional referenda are once-in-a-generation events.”
But a complete refusal would be unrealistic. We do face an odd situation where despite losing the referendum in 2014 the SNP has become the dominant political party in Scotland: winning 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons was extraordinary. That can not be ignored. Nor can the significant change in circumstances of the UK’s forthcoming departure from the EU. “Now is not the time,” is an eminently reasonable approach. When would be? The Daily Telegraph reports that having one in six years could be the plan. That would be dependent on the SNP winning a clear victory in the next Scottish elections in 2021. Unionists certainly have some work to do – the polling indications that breaking with the UK is more popular among younger Scots than pensioners is worrying. On the other hand those of us confident that by 2023 Brexit will already be a success – and be seen to be a success – can also have some confidence that staying in the UK will be accepted as the right choice in any ballot that takes place.