“The dream shall never die,” Alex Salmond proclaimed when standing down as leader of the Scottish National Party after losing the 2014 independence referendum. Judging by his party’s latest posturing, public opinion and the state of Scotland’s economy, that dream is on life support.
Britain’s vote to leave the EU gave Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, an opportunity to reopen the independence debate, despite proclaiming that the last referendum was a “once in a generation” vote. On Friday, she launched a “new conversation” around the independence question, on the basis that Brexit has changed matters and it is “right” to keep the issue live.
No, it is not. According to a poll from YouGov, half of Scots are opposed to holding another referendum. Just 11 per cent think independence should be a priority for Scottish government, putting it below healthcare, economic development, the EU, education, housing and welfare. Ms Sturgeon is also wrong that there has been a drive towards independence since the referendum: 54 per cent believe Scotland should not be an independent country, compared with 46 per cent who do — just a one-point change in favour of leaving the UK.
It is not only public opinion stacked against the nationalists’ case. The latest spending figures said that the Scottish economy had a £15bn deficit in the past financial year and its North Sea oil revenues have collapsed by 97 per cent — from £1.8bn in 2014-15 to £60m. Until Mrs Sturgeon can answer how Scotland will pay its own way outside the UK, there is no viable case for independence. The polling suggests that just under half think Scotland benefits economically from being part of the Union.
There is another concern for the SNP: the revival of the Scottish Conservatives. According to the poll, 46 per cent think Ruth Davidson is doing well as opposition leader, compared with just 25 per cent for Kezia Dugdale as leader of the Scottish Labour party. Even Theresa May has positive ratings north of the border: 35 per cent think she is doing well as prime minister, compared with 18 per cent for Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party. By painting themselves as the party of the Union, the Scottish Tories can make headway by pointing out the flaws in the independence case.
It appears that the desire for another independence referendum burns only in the hearts of Ms Sturgeon and the nationalist zealots. This SNP “listening exercise” reveals an important truth about the first minister: she is often proclaimed to be a strategic political genius; she is not.
Ever since the UK opted to leave the EU on June 23, she has attempted to use the vote for Brexit as an opportunity to reopen the independence debate. Her announcement shows there is no grand plan for breaking up the Union. The SNP can only stall while it tries to figure out what to do next.