As the SNP again attempts to prise Scotland out of the UK, STUART MILLSON engages in a little counter-factual fantasy
Professor John Curtis of Strathclyde University, the country’s leading psephologist, had (within a few percentage points) been proved right. Ever since the announcement of a second independence referendum by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, the polls consistently showed a reversal of the 55:45 result from 2014 – leading to the unthinkable, the secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom after more than 300 years of union.
And yet already a constitutional crisis of another and unexpected sort had engulfed the SNP, threatening to sour its victory. Despite the overall majority vote for Scotland to revert to its pre-1707 state, certain sections of the Scottish electorate had not moved from their 2014 position: with the Borders resolutely clinging to their 70 per cent support for the Union, and several conjoining areas of the Lowlands narrowly keeping the unionist vote just above 50%. The Orkney Islands had also voted to remain within the United Kingdom – the islands first declaring their loyalty to the UK during the 2014 referendum campaign, when a group emerged on social media, proclaiming that in the event of an SNP victory, a petition would be presented to the Government in Edinburgh to leave the new Scottish state and rejoin the United Kingdom. Scotland – to the dismay of the party which had long seen itself as representing the country incarnate – was split: a schism that could only be resolved by the creation of a new border, a situation not seen in the British Isles since the creation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State in 1922.
The SNP’s position on independence, or what was presented as independence, had suffered considerably following the successful implementation in 2021 of a UK-wide Covid vaccine – Boris Johnson’s one true achievement during the pandemic (the effects of which were still being felt after the Scottish referendum). The First Minister’s earlier enthusiasm for Scotland to take its place as an “independent nation within Europe” had been readjusted somewhat, following the clumsy attempt by the European Commission to nationalise and control the manufacture and supply of Covid vaccines. Even to confirmed ‘Europeans’ and romantic Remainers, the actions of Brussels emphasised how little member-states could expect independence – especially in a Europe, which following the conclusion of the UK’s Brexit settlement, now saw itself as a ‘sovereign equal’, a state in itself.
The anxiety felt across the pro-Union areas of Scotland soon translated into a refusal to accept wholesale incorporation into the new system and state. The quiet, conservative Borders soon resounded with the cry to withhold council tax to the Scottish authorities; foreign news-crews made camp along the villages and towns of the Tweed valley, eager to interview farmers and freeholders, and Anglo-Scottish families who could not countenance living under what some described as ‘the Sinn Féin of Scotland’. (Despite its earliest, Scottish baronial conservatism, the SNP of the middle-2020s had evolved a strongly metropolitan ideological core, with one element – muzzled during the second referendum – espousing curbs on speech and thought, the abolition of the monarchy and perhaps the dispossession of the Royal Family from Balmoral.) A visceral dislike of the other point of view overcame Scottish politics: a breakdown of all consensus, a negation of all that Tony Blair had hoped to achieve in 1999 with his policy of devolution and the revival of a Scottish Parliament.
Scottish and Whitehall civil servants began to meet in Holyrood – a strange echo of their predecessors’ meeting in 1707, when a new country and flag were sewn together. Now, a country was being re-created, but one in which a limb of the original Union of Great Britain would survive. Within months a Royal Commission and a Commission of the Scottish Parliament had sketched a new Scottish border, based as accurately as could be on the votes cast in the referendum – pleasing some, disappointing many, dismaying, no doubt, most of the majority of Scots who had hoped at all costs to avoid another bad-tempered plebiscite. Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling would, it was thought, form the central part of the new Scotland, but the capital itself proved an impossible factor in the constitutional equation. As in 2014, Edinburgh had narrowly voted for UK membership: an embarrassing problem for the legislators of Holyrood.
With part of Scotland still in the United Kingdom, and the Orkney Islands granted a form of UK semi-autonomy (an Isle of Man of the North Sea), the United Kingdom survived, in wounded, chastened form. Boris Johnson’s ministers appeared, each day, with Union flags furled on platforms and arranged on bookcases for their announcements via Zoom – the Government keen to remind Nicola Sturgeon of the thousands of Scots in England and Commonwealth countries who belonged to the British family of nations. The independent Scotland, scarred by partition, nevertheless celebrated its new existence, although the European Commission had still not considered whether it would be allowed to rejoin the European Union. For the time being, the Bank of Scotland issued Scottish pound-notes, an arrangement supported by the broad shoulders of the UK Treasury, keen to show its goodwill. Sir Sean Connery’s image – his familiar form adorned in Highland dress – adorned the new banknotes, although a vociferous campaign by supporters of Alex Salmond to include the charismatic First Minister who resigned in 2014 was still underway.
It is not known if a third referendum will ever be held, to confirm, or disconfirm what came to pass with the remaking of the map of Great Britain – and the unexpected partition of Scotland.
STUART MILLSON is a Contributing Editor to the Brazen Head