A thousand iPhone screens lit up all at once.
The humming of government-issued BlackBerrys carried the buzz.
Impromptu chat groups sprung up and precious scraps were shared via direct messages.
It took ten days between an anonymous tip-off and the discovery of Guy Fawkes and his 36 barrels of explosives for the Gunpowder Plot to be uncovered. In the digital age, even the most secretive subversion can be revealed far and wide in a matter of seconds.
In newsrooms and living rooms, the back seats of ministerial cars and the corridors of power, the news was coursing through the arteries of information, terminally clogged by gossip and rumour.
It was late last Sunday evening, and politicians, journalists, and civil servants across Britain were receiving the same message, the level of detail corresponding to their place in the political pecking order.
All of these digital missives was a variation on these words: ‘Unscheduled presser. Bute House. Tomorrow. This is it.’
A ‘presser’ is journalese for a press conference; pressers are rarely unscheduled, unless Something Big is about to happen. Bute House, a four-storey town house located at 6 Charlotte Square in Edinburgh, is the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland.
It could mean only one thing: Nicola Sturgeon had gone for it. A second referendum on independence was now on the table. And all hell was about to break loose.
The SNP has managed to spin normally sceptical hacks the line that Downing Street was caught on the back foot by Miss Sturgeon’s Monday surprise. It’s true that the timing was news to Number 10 — received wisdom ran that the Nationalist leader would unveil her gambit at the SNP annual spring conference in Aberdeen this afternoon.
But the UK Government has known since 2014, when Miss Sturgeon’s party refused to accept their 55% to 45% defeat, that another push for separation was a matter of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’. Contingency plans have been in place for some time, both to push back a referendum do-over until after Brexit and, if need be, to fight one immediately. The Nationalists are not dealing with that nice Mr Cameron anymore.
And Theresa May’s response to Miss Sturgeon’s demand was more cautiously-worded, better thought through, than the contributions that became common from David Cameron during the first referendum. Crucially, she did not dole out a flat No; instead, she said Not Yet.
Speaking on Thursday, Mrs May told an interviewer: ‘When the SNP government say that it’s the time to start talking about a new independence referendum, I say that just at this point, all our energies should be focused on our negotiations with the European Union about our future relationship… That’s my job as Prime Minister. Right now we should be working together, not pulling apart. And so, for that reason, I say to the SNP, now is not the time.’
This was pitched perfectly to Scottish voters, to whom she was really talking. The Prime Minister refused to be drawn into an unseemly public spat with the SNP leader, instead making her common sense case to the electorate. Westminster, she was saying, was not preventing Scotland from holding another independence referendum. But we have Brexit to get through so let’s stick with one constitutional crisis at a time.
The timing was delicious too, for Miss Sturgeon truly was caught unawares. Mrs May’s interview hit the airwaves as the First Minister was fending off attacks from Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale of Scottish Labour. No doubt Number 10 saw advantage in reminding Bute House that both sides in this tussle can play games but the gleeful vengeance had Miss Davidson’s name written all over it.
Why, though, is Theresa May holding off another independence referendum? Given that most polls show the Nationalists would go down to a second defeat — even the most optimistic surveys only put separation at 50/50 with continuing in the Union — would it not be wiser to invite a vote now, and put the nationalist campaign out of business for a generation — an actual generation?
This is where Mrs May is of keener mind than her predecessor. She recognises that, even if the Union was once again victorious, the uncertainty caused by holding a referendum in the middle of negotiations to implement the outcome of another referendum would be damaging. Apart from making Britain look faintly ridiculous — which goes with the territory when you select Boris Johnson as your Foreign Secretary — it would cast doubt on the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom at a time when projecting confidence was essential. Mrs May and her ministers must be able to enter the Brexit negotiations with calm assurance. If they look weak or desperate, they will bring home a bad deal for Britain — or worse, no deal at all.
Were the potential secession of part of Britain to hang over these top-level discussions, it would put the UK’s negotiators at a disadvantage — possibly an insurmountable one. The European Commission, to say nothing of would-be global trading partners, could in all reasonableness demur from cutting a deal with a country that doesn’t know what its borders are going to be in a few years’ time. It would not make good business sense. It would be the investment of the roulette wheel.
Of course, the Not Yet declaration implies that there will be a Yet sometime down the line. Miss Sturgeon wants to hold a second referendum between the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2019. That Mrs May has ruled out because it would take place before the conclusion of the Brexit talks. Does that set up ‘indyref2′ for later in 2019? Unfortunately for impatient Nationalists, they would still have quite some time to wait after formal Brexit for a fresh plebiscite.
Taking into account the length of time needed for the legislative consent process, negotiation of a second Edinburgh Agreement between Westminster and Holyrood, time for the Electoral Commission to scrutinise the proposed question, and the general and devolved elections in 2020 and 2021, respectively, the earliest feasible point at which indyref2 could take place would be autumn 2021 but more probably at some point in 2022.
Mrs May has not saved the Union, she has merely won it a stay of execution. That gives pro-UK forces some time, but not much, to work on a positive case for the Union and to assemble a long-term campaign that can sustain itself for at least another five years. For all that Unionists lament the Nationalists’ obsession with constitutional politicking, they are going to have to replicate it from here on in.
Although blueprints are in place for a renewed pro-Union effort, Mrs May will still require wise counsel and reliable generals. That Ruth Davidson sits atop both lists is without doubt but there are others, not all of them Tories, to whom the Prime Minister must lend her ear. This includes business and civic society leaders, political scientists, philosophers, and a whole host of other voices who can contribute original thinking about what Britain is, what it’s for, and what unites its people.
Politics, however, will still take the lead. An unlikely asset has emerged in the form of Scottish Secretary David Mundell. Scotland’s only MP was once known by the nickname ‘Fluffy’ within the Tory Party. He was considered soft, bumbling, incapable of taking a briefing or sticking to a line. No amount of coaching seemed able to polish him. But he was far-sighted, renowned for his ability to foresee dangers and opportunities well into the future. That, it seemed, would have to do.
Fast forward a few years and the Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale MP is unrecognisable from the hapless junior minister of the Coalition. What changed? For one, his title. Upon winning a majority in May 2015, David Cameron promoted his Scotland Office minister to Cabinet rank. The elevation seemed to spur Mr Mundell into upping his game. The other key change has been investment in the Scotland Office and the hiring of Magnus Gardham as spin doctor. The former Herald political editor has turned around the UK Government’s flagging communications operation in Scotland, forcing the Press corps to treat the Scotland Office and Bute House with something approaching parity.
As for Mr Mundell, he is now one of Mrs May’s most assured Cabinet ministers and can be relied upon to bat away tough questions in interviews and lob one-liners at the Nats during Scottish Questions. They don’t call him Fluffy anymore. He’s got cannier too. If additional powers are to be devolved after Brexit, expect him to package them together in another Scotland Bill and ram it up the Nationalists’ noses.
On the other side of the Tweed, the Nationalists appear to have much to their advantage. Support for independence seems to have a floor of somewhere between 40% and 45%; a few extra percentage points and it would be victory to the secessionists. Importantly, new survey data shows that more Scots than ever define themselves as Scottish rather than British, providing an opening for the SNP to run the kind of campaign it seems to be gearing up to: Crude, populist, nationalistic. Their pitch next time won’t be ‘Vote Yes to be more social democratic’; it will be ‘Vote Yes to be more Scottish’.
There is also the opportunity to spin Mrs May’s ‘Not Yet’ as Westminster bullying Scotland. The party that can demonise teacakes and travel agencies as wicked oppressors of the Scottish people will have no problem verballing a Tory Prime Minister. That will mean Miss Sturgeon continuing to march her troops up the hill of indyref2, knowing full well that it isn’t going to happen for another five years.
Next week, she will ask MSPs to vote for a Section 30 request, petitioning Westminster for the power to hold a second referendum. There is no mandate for the Scottish Parliament to pursue such a policy. The constitution is reserved to the UK Parliament; a party winning a Holyrood election on a manifesto of surrendering Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent or withdrawing Scottish troops from an international conflict would not be thought to have grounds for pursuing such policies.
Even if this point were conceded — it is done so from first principles by the eager constitutionalists who populate the Scottish academy — there is another flaw in the Nationalists’ argument. True, they came first in the May 2016 election and their manifesto envisioned ‘Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will’ as cause for a re-run of 2014’s ‘once in a generation’ poll. But the Nationalists failed to secure a majority of seats at Holyrood for that proposition, winning only 63 out of 129. Fortunately for the SNP, they have six to spare in the shape of the Scottish Greens, once a conscientious party of the Left but, under Patrick Harvie, a Me-Too faction for the most triangulating government since New Labour.
Every time the Nats get themselves into a jam, every time it looks like they might finally have to stop girning and start governing, up pop the six little anoraks, festooned with CND badges and brimming with good intentions, and they come to the rescue. Time after time, Mr Harvie drags the SNP out of a hole and gets nothing in return except a pat on the head. That isn’t leadership; it’s the political instincts of Lassie.
The Greens’ amening of Miss Sturgeon’s gambit is different from previous acts of handmaidenry because it breaks the party’s pledge to the voters. In the manifesto they were elected on last May, the Greens promised:
‘Citizens should be able to play a direct role in the legislative process: on presenting a petition signed by an appropriate number of voters, citizens should be able to trigger a vote on important issues of devolved responsibility. As we proposed on the one year anniversary of the Independence Referendum, this is the Scottish Greens’ preferred way of deciding to hold a second referendum on Independence. If a new referendum is to happen, it should come about by the will of the people, and not be driven by calculations of party political advantage. In such a referendum the Scottish Greens will campaign for independence.’
There has been no citizens’ initiative for a second referendum. Indeed, at time of writing 175,000 have signed a petition against holding another plebiscite. For a party committed to radical democracy, this is a brazen act of political legerdemain. At the next election they should stand on a more honest platform: ‘Nicola’s Little Helpers’.
Contra the Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, war is actually good for quite a lot of things, especially when a flagging government hopes to distract the domestic populace from its many failings. In political strategy, it’s called ‘wagging the dog’ — drawing voters’ attentions away from serious but dull matters of public policy with a eye-grabbing announcement or a foreign conflict.
Indyref2 is Nicola Sturgeon’s idea of a good war. Don’t ask awkward questions about failing schools and hospitals missing targets. Don’t demand more jobs and better, higher-paying ones. Don’t query the cavalcade of calamities that is SNP justice policy. Keep your eye on that shifty Westminster; they could attack us at any time. Put out more flags and all will be well.
But wars, even ersatz political battles designed to buy time and boost polling numbers, always carry the same risk of insurgency. The flaw in the nationalist critique, one replicated by Scotland’s squidgy-Nat commentariat, is that identity politics is mono-directional. The SNP’s stoking of grievance, intended to keep their grassroots agitated, has succeeded in awakening another beast altogether: Unionist Scotland. The 2014 referendum largely involved angry separatists waving Saltires and screaming at the silent majority. The next referendum, if and when it comes, will be a contest between two angry mobs, one waving a Saltire and the other a Union Flag, and both howling at a much-diminished moderate middle.
This raises an uncomfortable but unavoidable question. What if the SNP narrowly won a second referendum? The answer is obvious: Unionists are sensible, respectable, pragmatic folk; they would accept the outcome, with much bitterness and fear at first, and eventually make their peace with the will of the majority.
Would they? Like so many assumptions from 2014, this one may no longer hold. Some Unionists, perhaps many, might feel a decade of division all for nothing isn’t worth it. They may decide to reject the result and instead coalesce around a single party — perhaps the Tories — and campaign for a further referendum on the terms of any deal to quit the UK. Given the bitter economic medicine that awaits an independent Scotland, and the likelihood of the UK driving a hard bargain, Unionists might figure that public opinion could be swung against independence in time to divert disaster.
It hardly matters whether this seems a plausible scenario or not. The past 12 months are littered with implausible scenarios come to pass. In stoking up a chauvinistic brand of Scottishness, Nicola Sturgeon has given birth to a reasserted Britishness, even if it is smaller in number. By promising to take back control for Nationalist Scotland, she has caused British Scotland to fear its identity is under threat. In those circumstances, even flights of fancy seem less fanciful. A Unionist pushback could hardly be branded extreme or anti-democratic. They would merely be aping the strategy taken by the SNP after the first referendum.
Whatever happens now or in 2022, bitter constitutional politics is here to stay. Over the course of the coming five years, we are going to learn in intimate detail why the Chinese wish, ‘May you live in interesting times’, is a curse, not a blessing.
The stakes of British politics, already at seemingly dizzying heights, have been raised higher still. The nation has entered a slow-moving stand-off that will either end in the dissolution of the United Kingdom or the termination of Nicola Sturgeon’s political career, and possibly the ejection from government of her party. The confrontation looming will be more bitter than the miners’ strike; the constitutional fallout graver than the abdication of Edward VIII. We are embarking on the first days of Britain’s future — or the final days of Britain.