There will be no Indyref2 in 2020, but Unionists must get their act together

If you’re already struggling to keep your New Year’s resolutions, spare a thought for Nicola Sturgeon, who is resolved to get a second referendum on independence out of a Tory government in the next 12 months.

Since inheriting the SNP leadership from Alex Salmond in 2014, Sturgeon has been forced into a series of increasingly ludicrous tests, pledges and rhetorical formulas to string along her impatient support base.

This has sustained her position until now but now is when it really matters. Theresa May said no. Boris Johnson said no. Brexit is happening. Nicola Sturgeon is all out of excuses. What will she pivot to next and will her grassroots finally lose its patience?

There will not be a second, legally-binding referendum on independence in 2020. It simply will not happen. Sturgeon tells her party otherwise for the same reason debtors tell loansharks they’ll have their money next week.

But the First Minister can only stall for so long. Soon it will become clear that she cannot deliver and she will urge her troops to focus on winning a mandate in next year’s Holyrood election. She will do this with little regard to her claims already to have a mandate over the past three and a half years.

The truth is that she doesn’t have a mandate and cannot obtain one. The constitution is reserved to Westminster and winning a Holyrood poll on a pro-independence manifesto is no more a mandate for an independence referendum than securing victory on a platform of removing Trident from the Clyde would be a mandate for that.

The General Election was also supposed to have granted her a mandate but this was an election to the House of Commons and the SNP won just 47 of 650 seats. Sturgeon and her sympathisers prate about a ‘democratic deficit’ but they are the ones arguing against parliamentary democracy.

Bottom line: Scotland will not be leaving the Union, or even voting on it, in 2020. However that is no reason for complacency on the part of Sturgeon’s opponents, not least because the SNP looks set to dominate Scottish politics for years to come. Eventually, there will be another Prime Minister like David Cameron who is foolhardy enough to concede a referendum. Fresh thinking and political steel will be needed to see off the Nationalist threat and keep the UK together in the longer term.

The future of the Union depends on four factors: economics, identity, politics and the constitution.

The UK Government must entrench and enhance the economic benefits of the Union to Scotland. Currently, those advantages include participation in the world’s sixth largest economy, access to the UK single market, sharing in the UK’s global footprint and trading clout, and receipt of the block grant from the Treasury.

It is important that the UK retains its competitive edge as it leaves the EU and the government would do well to put the UK single market on a more definitive footing, but the most direct route to strengthening the economic ties of the Union is through the block grant. Treasury allocations are decided by the Barnett Formula, a funding mechanism that assigns Holyrood a population-based percentage share of spending in England on matters that are devolved to Scotland. In theory, this means that spending increases down south result in more money north of the Border.

The reverse, however, is also true. Although the pro-spending consensus at Westminster is in full swing, Barnett is at the mercy of a future austerity programme. Devolved powers over income tax also make Holyrood’s budget susceptible to similar spikes and drop-offs elsewhere in the UK.

To end this precarity and reinforce the Union as the source of Scotland’s prosperity, Westminster should consider shifting to a formula of Barnett Plus. This would supplement the existing population-based metric with an additional allocation calculated according to need. Put simply, Barnett Plus would mean that overall funding for Scotland must increase year on year and, when the grant is set to fall, a top-up payment is allocated that reflects Scotland’s distinctive social and economic needs.

Unlike the block grant, the supplement would not be at the Scottish Government’s discretion to spend and would instead be targeted at areas of high deprivation and demographics who are most in need — for example, extra investment for Easterhouse or single-parent families. Not only would the Union come to mean ever-increasing investment in Scotland but in prioritising spending the UK Government would again be involved in day-to-day funding decisions in devolved matters.

Economics matter but they are not all that matter. As Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the SNP’s 45 per cent base have taught us, it is not enough to win the economic arguments because the debate is also one over identity. The Nationalists are at an advantage because their message is so temptingly simple and emotive: Scotland is a nation held back by another nation and must break free to prosper.

The Unionist argument — which begins with history, takes a detour to explore solidarity, then stalls on talk of pounds and pence — is altogether more unwieldy. The SNP has captured Scottishness and annexed patriotism to its own narrow political purposes, a task to which the institutions of the devolved state have been turned since 2007. Counteracting this will be a huge feat.

The crux of the Unionist case should be the freedom that comes with fluid identities. To endure, the Union must belong to those with Scottish or British identity or both.

A more immediate consideration is the political lie of the land. Nicola Sturgeon may not be able to deliver a second referendum but she still can — and does — use her governmental platform to promote separation. Removing her from office, or at least depriving her of a secessionist majority at Holyrood, must be the primary objective of all Unionists.

Given the decline of Labour, the Tories must broaden their appeal by championing fairness, opportunity and public services. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems will have to reassert themselves as the voice of progressive, environmentally conscious Scotland.

Finally, and most controversially, Westminster will have to reckon with the flaws in the devolution settlement that have allowed the SNP to turn Holyrood into a daily campaign rally for independence. There are deft ways to do this without handing the Nationalists another grievance.

For instance, a new Scotland Act stipulating that Scottish Parliament resources may only be used to facilitate business on matters devolved to Holyrood and that Scottish Government spending must relate to subjects on which the Scottish Parliament enjoys legislative competence. Reforming Holyrood will meet noisy and concerted opposition but it is vital to stop the ratchet effect that tugs Scotland closer and closer to the exit without a single vote being cast.

Nicola Sturgeon can gin up fire and fury but, in the end, Boris will decide and she will abide. That is no excuse for Unionist complacency. Downing Street and those across the country who value the Union must become bolder, smarter and more industrious in its defence.


‘Broadening the debate’ in party politics is fraught with risk. That was the reason given by otherwise sensible MPs for nominating Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. That ended well.

Coronations bring their own hobgoblins and so Scottish Conservatives should welcome the news that Michelle Ballantyne intends to stand against Jackson Carlaw. Her candidacy will allay fears that he is succeeding Ruth Davidson by divine right.

On Brexit, social issues and welfare, Ballantyne is a more authentic voice of the membership than the born-again liberal Mr Carlaw, whose Tory group seems more interested in out-spending the SNP than in questioning the size and scope of government. This appeals to bleeding hearts like me but, if my inbox is anything to go by, Conservative voters are fed up with wobble and want the Tory message to firm up.

The centre is where the party prospers but the Right should be defeated in debate rather than dismissed out of hand. That’s Labour’s other lesson: don’t take your long-suffering supporters for granted.


Following its electoral drubbing, Scottish Labour is awash with exciting and innovative ideas. Prominent figures — as prominent as you can be while standing in an under-occupied telephone box — want to split from UK Labour, form a new party and even back Indyref2. It’s called the SNP, comrades. You’ve invented the SNP.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at

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