As the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, then try, try, try again. Which is how Alex Salmond’s comments on Scottish independence, made yesterday to Andrew Marr, have been interpreted in some quarters.
Mr Salmond, as many of the papers have quoted, has suggested that a second referendum on Scottish independence is inevitable. Unsurprisingly his comments kicked off furious reaction on both sides. Those who campaigned to maintain the Union pointed to the SNP’s (and Mr Salmond’s) defeat in a referendum less than 12 months ago. The advocates for independence have been swift to claim that Westminster has failed to deliver the ‘devo-max’ promised last year, while also claiming the political status quo has changed in light of the SNP’s stunning electoral success in May.
But for all the furore, Mr Salmond’s comments are entirely predictable. The reality is that, as long as the SNP maintains its dominance in Scotland, another referendum will happen. And, given he is a politician who’s devoted much of his career to bringing about independence, it would be naïve to expect Mr Salmond to give up his dream when asked point blank about it on national television.
The question – as Mr Salmond has pointed out – is not whether another referendum takes place, but when it happens. And this is a question that’s fraught with difficulty for both sides. Pro-union advocates would likely continue to struggle to articulate their message (which they nearly failed to do last year), particularly when ‘English votes for English laws’ remains a topic under discussion within Westminster.
But when another referendum takes place is no less of a conundrum for the SNP. The Party would risk accusations of ignoring the electorate if it tried to push through another referendum in the short or even medium-term, given the results of last year’s vote. It would also undermine the position of many of the Party’s leaders, including Nicola Sturgeon, who have previously claimed the referendum was a ‘once in a generation’ event.
But the other questions for the SNP could threaten the Party far more deeply. For all the rhetoric about a lack of progress for further devolution, there is a question as to whether the political situation in Scotland and the rest of the UK has changed sufficiently to reverse the result of last year’s referendum. There is similarly the question of whether an independence campaign is now able to answer the questions it struggled with 12 months ago.
Losing a second referendum within a matter of years could well push back the SNP’s vision of an independent Scotland by a generation or more. Mr Salmond might be right that another vote is inevitable. But he and colleagues might have to wait a while longer before trying again.