Sturgeon is unlikely to get her 2023 referendum, but be warned: the threat is not going away

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<span>Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

On the face of things, now may not seem like an ideal time to be restarting the campaign for Scottish independence, as Nicola Sturgeon has done this week. Only one in five Scottish voters think a new referendum is a priority in the next two years, a YouGov poll found this week. For most Scots, independence trails in importance behind the NHS, the economy, education and the climate crisis.

On the wider stage, moreover, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shocked European nations into much greater unity and overarching shared purpose, not their fissiparous opposites. The G7 and Nato summits this week embodied an imperative for Europe to put its often serious differences aside and pull together against Russia’s generational threat. Even Boris Johnson gets that, a bit.

Yet the world is not so easily ordered. It may be common to see Sturgeon as essentially the moderate social democratic reformist that she sometimes appears to be. But this is wrong. She is in reality, and above all, a nationalist leader of a nationalist party. And she is under great pressure, after a decade and more of repeated electoral successes, to translate party dominance into Scotland’s conclusive departure from the UK.

The Scottish National party leader’s new plan is to hold a second referendum on independence in October 2023 on the same question that was asked and rejected in 2014. She is asking the UK supreme court to rule whether the Scottish parliament has the power to hold such a poll without the UK parliament’s authority. If the judges say yes, the referendum will go ahead. If they say no, it will not, but the SNP will make independence its sole policy in the following election.

It is important, both in Scotland and in England, to grasp that this does not mean the breakup of Britain is suddenly imminent. It does not even mean that there is about to be another test on the scale of 2014’s. Sturgeon’s announcement may look like a general mobilisation of Scots for a moment of national liberation. But looks can deceive. That is the case here. Almost everything that was announced this week is highly conditional. It doesn’t even command united support among the SNP’s most senior leaders.

Sturgeon is not risking a frontal assault on the union. Instead, and in marked contrast with the tactics of Catalan nationalists in 2017, her strategy explicitly defers to the laws of the UK parliament as interpreted in the UK supreme court. To employ the terminology of the Marxist political thinker Antonio Gramsci, Sturgeon is engaged in a careful war of position, not in a more full-on war of manoeuvre. This is different from Alex Salmond, whose approach a decade ago was more boldly full-on. Sturgeon’s approach is also more difficult to execute.

The first minister hopes that by accepting that the proposed referendum would be consultative not decisive, the court will allow it to go ahead. Many, but not all, constitutional experts disagree. They believe the devolution legislation of 1998 reserves such constitutional issues to the UK parliament alone. They suspect that the court would take into account the real-world political consequences of a second referendum, which would be considerable. And they sense that the supreme court of 2022 under Lord Reed would prefer, if it persuades itself that the law allows it to do so, to avoid the kind of confrontation with the UK government that the court of 2019 under Lady Hale encountered over prorogation.

Either way, though, the path to independence would not be simple, for reasons both legal and political. The Conservative lawyer Adam Tomkins pointed out this week that the supreme court may simply refuse to take the case on the grounds that the referendum legislation has not yet been enacted. Even if the court permits a consultative referendum, it seems likely that most supporters of the union will boycott it, thus making the referendum a problem rather than a solution, as happened in Catalonia.

Nor is it clear how a general election can seriously be treated as a single-issue referendum in either legal or political terms. This is wishful thinking. It is muddied still further by the public disagreements between Sturgeon and her deputy, John Swinney, earlier this week over whether victory would be declared on the basis of votes cast or seats won. And what happens to this strategy if Johnson calls an early election in an attempt to save his skin?

It remains improbable that there will be a referendum in 2023. Yet nationalism is an ever-present spectre at the British state feast. History should remind us that, precisely when other minds are elsewhere, nationalist minds remain focused. Irish nationalism was not deflected by the world wars. Scottish nationalism, which is now the most potent separatist movement in Europe, is no different. One way or another, we must all live with the reality that these issues cannot be wished away or magically resolved.

No part of the UK may have gone its own way for more than a century. Yet only a fool in a hurry would claim that Britain in 2022 is a country at ease with itself or with its institutions. Although the more apocalyptic warnings – that Scotland would break away after Brexit, or Northern Ireland descend into violence over the EU withdrawal protocol – have not come to pass, uncertainty about the islands’ futures is palpable.

Nationalism thrives in the absence, exacerbated by Brexit, of a shared and capacious sense of what Britain is. The approaching end of a long monarchical reign adds something to this fragility. In many ways, the problem is not so much the existence of so many unresolved tensions. It is the elusiveness of any forward-looking consensus for addressing them over the long term. If it is ever to move beyond all this, Britain needs a movement of more open and conciliatory minds that can steer it between the rocks of Anglocentric unionism and the building of fresh borders across these islands.

This is a problem that Johnson is totally ill equipped to address, even if he wanted to. The truth, therefore, is that this task, if it is to be tackled, must fall to a new leader. If that leader is Keir Starmer, he will face an enormous economic, social and international agenda and may do so as head of a minority government. It is a daunting prospect. But the greatest challenge that history has reserved for Starmer will be to find a way of recreating the British state. Starmer’s plan to rule out an alliance with the SNP and to oppose a second referendum imply that he gets it.

  • Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist

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