Sorry, First Minister, you don’t hold all the cards on indyref2

That’s it then, lads.

Run down the Union Jack and up with the white flag.

Faced with the dread prospect of another independence referendum, a gloom is settling over Unionist Scotland. The nationalists were only just subdued last time around; now they’re back and, armed with Brexit, certain to win. This year, Last Night of the Proms might be just that. Narrower still and narrower/Shall thy bounds be set.

I’m not so sure.

These are not times for reason; hyperbole is the new national mood and under-reaction an admission of apathy. Theresa May falls foul of a commentariat that demands blood, sweat and especially tears, preferably accompanied by a Twitter hashtag and celebrity retweets. The Prime Minister is rebuked for not scolding the American president over an obnoxious policy. On Brexit she is accused of dithering for failing to stick her negotiating strategy up on Facebook and branded callous for using EU nationals as a “bargaining chip”. (No opprobrium attaches to European leaders for doing the same with Brits.)

But Scots who oppose the break-up of the United Kingdom have no greater friend than Mrs May’s stout sense of proportion. She is no poll-frit PR smoothie in terror of the next focus group. She is not, and no despatch box mimicry will make her, Margaret Thatcher. To the extent this vicar’s daughter hews to any philosophy, it is the Anglican injunction that we be “quietly governed”.

That temperament will be tested if, as seems likely, the SNP demands a second referendum on independence in the coming months. No sooner had the ballot boxes been packed away in 2014 than the Nationalists were ratting on their “once in a generation” promise. Brexit is the pretext they’ve been waiting for. Nicola Sturgeon, a lifelong European since last June, is outraged that Scots will be dragged out of the EU — not so outraged that she didn’t risk a similar outcome with her campaign for independence, of course.

It would be churlish, though, not to acknowledge that Brexit, especially the prospect of a hard break from our continental alliance, has made independence more appealing to some. The polls still point to a Unionist majority but even a small shift in public opinion could put the Nationalists over the line.

Still, it’s perfectly possible that the separatists can be beaten again. This begins with Unionists rekindling their confidence. The United Kingdom is a good place to live and work and raise a family. It is as far from perfect as any other nation but it is not the cruel dystopia described by the Nats with bloodcurdling glee. Their true objection is not to the bits of Britain that don’t work but to the bits that do, where it presents a rival identity and source of belonging.

Where Mrs May’s calm method will be essential is in handling the constitutional niceties. Well-meaning counsellors will remind her that the constitution is a reserved matter and the authority to hold a referendum lies solely with Parliament. This is true but the appearance of obstructionism will come with a heavy price.

The same goes for the wording of any referendum question. The Prime Minister should push for the ballot to reflect more closely the language of the EU plebiscite, with an unambiguous reference to leaving or remaining in the UK. Ultimately, though, the phrasing that will command greatest legitimacy is the one recommended by the Electoral Commission.

There is also much to learn from her predecessor’s mistakes. David Cameron was always semi-detached when it came to Scotland, almost to the cost of the Union. As journalist Joe Pike records in his book Project Fear, a Cameron gaffe over timing allowed Alex Salmond to set the date, and the pace, of the 2014 referendum. This gave the Nationalists an incalculable advantage — and over two years to wear down the voters with false promises and manufactured resentment.

This time, the UK Government should press for the referendum to be held within the next six months or after Brexit is complete. A long, lingering campaign gives too many hostages to fortune and, fortunately for Unionists, the polls are not yet where Miss Sturgeon wants them to be. Proposing a vote in the next sixth months would put the SNP leader in a bind — call a poll and risk losing or delay and sow seeds of discontent within her ranks.

The Prime Minister should defer in all matters to Ruth Davidson. The Scottish Conservative leader has better political instincts than 20 Spads, to say nothing of the clever-clevers at the Treasury. She has a clearer read on strategy, a firmer grasp of the grammar of grievance that the UK Government will be up against. She would not, for instance, leap gawkishly into the trap laid for defence secretary Michael Fallon earlier this month, wherein he belligerently told the First Minister to “forget it” on a referendum re-run.

A second referendum will be fought on fresh terms but the No campaign should remind voters of the 2014 White Paper and the shoddy prospectus it offered for building a new country. The $113 barrels of oil. The currency union that became the Panama Pound and then a currency union again. The assertions that Scotland, which is not a member state of the EU, would simply and seamlessly inherit the UK’s membership. And let’s not forget the small matter of Scotland spending £15bn more every year than it brings in.

Each of these questions remains outstanding, however much the nationalists will want to make a second referendum about Brexit. Not that Unionists should shy away from a debate on the EU, whose highest-ranking officials consistently say Scotland would have to apply for membership, with the very real threat of a Spanish veto. That’s before we get to the sizeable anti-EU minority within the SNP itself.

Europe is changing. The Europe of Parisian patisseries and Strasbourg ideals is morphing into the Europe of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. Tory wide boys and their benefit cuts aren’t terribly attractive but many Scots would rather take their chances with Austerity Britain than Nativist Europe.

That brings us to our final point, one that will scandalise the faithful but is too often neglected in compiling a case against the Nationalists.

Don’t be afraid to tell the truth about the SNP. However much they try to cloak their prejudices in the language of social democracy and self-determination, the proposition at the heart of their politics remains the same: That the people we share these islands with, the people we have farmed and built and invented and bled with— these people are different from us, so much so that we must break our political ties, disentangle three centuries of history, and withdraw into a separate state.

“Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on,” the oft-repeated cry of Winnie Ewing, has never been a declaration of internationalism. As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has benefited disproportionately in economic opportunity and cultural reach. But where the UK has given Scotland a platform, the Nationalists see a millstone. In their glum worldview, Scotland can only get on by getting away from its nearest neighbours.

Scotland is caught between the baleful dreams of two nationalisms; the victory of one need not secure the triumph of another. The first referendum probed our place in the UK and the complexities of departing. The second, when it comes, will be about what kind of people we are and what kind of country we want to be.


A crumb of justice is better than no justice at all.

The six-year lawfare campaign against our troops is to come to an end. Six years too late for countless lives, marriages and reputations but the news will be a relief to thousands deployed to Iraq in 2003.

They served their country with integrity and returned to smears and slanders from a Legal Aid lynch mob. The Iraq Historic Allegations Team allowed British soldiers to be branded murderers and torturers but in the end not a single successful prosecution was brought.

The mortar-chasing solicitor Phil Shiner has been struck off for misconduct but the blame does not lie with him alone. This witch hunt carried the imprimatur of government and picked our pocket of £34m.

One way for ministers to show contrition is to prevent a repeat in Ulster. British soldiers who were stationed there still fear a knock on the door; not for them the “comfort letters” sent to hundreds of IRA suspects.

Mistakes were made in Belfast as in Basra and we have rightly acknowledged them. But the overwhelming majority of our soldiers are brave and professional. It’s time we stopped hounding them and started honouring them.


I’m a rubbish environmentalist. My desk is littered with soft drink bottles and my recycling bin lies empty. Like most of us, I want to do my bit but it’s easy to get lazy. So our Banish the Bottles campaign is tailored for the likes of me. It’s a straight-forward, practical scheme that will tackle our addiction to plastic, a habit that anyone who’s taken a country stroll or an amble along a beach lately will attest to. We have a beautiful country; it’s not too much to ask that we take care of it.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol]

2 thoughts on “Sorry, First Minister, you don’t hold all the cards on indyref2

  1. Scotland voting YES may be the outcome of another referendum and Scotland may leave the union and good luck if it does. However if things turn out to be not so good out of the UK and out of Europe will Scotland want to rejoin the UK a few years down the road. They may very well want to but I suspect the matter will be put to a referendum in the rest of the UK, in fact I think it will be demanded and we may very well say No to Scotland.


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