It’s always instructive to pay close attention to what your opponents are saying. There’s a very interesting article in the Herald today, written by Andy Maciver. He is currently the director of a consulting and lobbying company, but was formerly the Head of Communications for the Scottish Conservatives and remains close to the party. Today he’s written a piece for the Herald in which he pretty much concedes that the game is up for opposition to independence in its traditional form.
The demographics of British nationalism in Scotland are woeful. Amongst the younger age groups, support for independence increases the younger the age group. Amongst 16 to 24 year olds support for independence becomes overwhelming. There is now only one age cohort in Scotland where there is not majority support for independence, the over 55s. And even there polling is picking up a gradual shift from no to yes as people age and move from the younger more pro-independence cohorts and into the older one. Opposition to independence in Scotland is quite literally dying off.
What this means for the current Just Say No strategy of the British Government and the Conservatives is that it is doomed to failure. The longer that the Conservatives manage to fend off a Scottish independence referendum, the more likely it becomes that there will be a yes vote when a democratic event in Scotland finally occurs. The Conservative government in Westminster might be able to say no to a Section 30 order, but they cannot control and suppress all democratic votes in Scotland. Eventually one of those votes will be held and independence parties will use it to seek a direct mandate for independence itself, and then opponents to independence are likely to lose heavily.
The polling expert John Curtiss suggested this week that should the British Government continue to refuse a Section 30 order following the election of a clear majority of pro-indy parties in next year’s Scottish elections, then the next UK General Election in 2024 could become a de facto referendum. Instead of standing on a mandate for a referendum, pro-independence parties could stand seeking a mandate for independence itself, as was the policy of the SNP before the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.
That’s a vote that the Tories can’t prevent from taking place. They can’t boycott it like they could boycott a referendum without a Section 30 order. Neither could they argue that success in a Westminster election didn’t provide a recognisable mandate as they themselves have insisted that constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster. Should a majority of Scotland’s voters back the independence parties, the international community would be prepared to accept this as a genuine democratic expression of Scotland’s desire to become independent if the British Government had previously been seen to block the clear and unarguable democratic demand for a referendum produced by the Scottish election. The British Government would have lost all control over the process.
In a normal year approximately 13500 people die each quarter in Scotland. Those are overwhelmingly in the oldest age cohort. That means that, if conditions were normal, we would expect some 540000 people in Scotland who were able to vote in the first referendum to have passed away by the time of the next UK General Election. These will be people who are predominantly amongst the oldest age cohort and a significant majority of whom would have opposed independence.
However we are not in normal times. We’re currently facing a pandemic which disproportionately affects older people. Any death is a tragedy to be mourned and wept over. Those numbers represent someone’s mother, father, brother, sister. But the sands run through the hourglass of life nevertheless, and cumulatively it has a political effect.
Those who pass away will be replaced on the electoral rolls by a similar (slightly smaller) number of younger people who will be overwhelmingly in support of independence. By 2024 kids who were only eight years old at the time of the first independence referendum will be eligible to vote in UK general elections, and kids who were only six years old at the time of the first referendum will be eligible to vote in Scottish and local elections. At a very rough guesstimate, that would mean that by 2024 approximately 400,000 of 2014’s No voters will have passed away and been replaced by 400,000 Yes voters.
Support for independence is now in the lead not just amongst all age groups except the oldest, it’s also in the lead with women voters, and also amongst those who belong to the better off sections of Scottish society. Both these groups showed a majority against independence in 2014. There has traditionally been a political assumption that the older people get the more conservative with a small c that they become, however that does not necessarily translate into younger Scottish people becoming more likely to oppose independence as they age. Support for independence cuts across all demographics, and crucially there is now also majority support for independence amongst the most affluent social class in Scotland. So there can be no guarantee that younger people who currently support independence will shift to opposition as they get older. Indeed, there’s some reason to believe that they only become more determined to achieve independence and more willing to use the skills and resources they’ve accumulated over a lifetime in order to do so.
Andy Maciver recognises that opposition to independence is facing a demographic collapse. The longer that the Tories succeed in stalling a vote on independence, the more likely it becomes that Scotland will vote for independence when a vote finally happens. And as we know, the Conservatives cannot prevent all democratic events from taking place in Scotland.
That just leaves changing the frame of the argument. Since opponents of independence are now facing a demographic mountain that they cannot surmount, Andy Maciver suggests that instead of simply opposing independence, British nationalists instead present a different argument. He suggests that they should instead seek to offer a comprehensive federalism to Scotland. The problem here is that the Conservatives in London have intensely centralising instincts and have no interest at all in losing part of their power in order to appease the Scots or to benefit the electoral prospects of a Scottish Conservative party which contributes only marginally to Conservative electoral success.
What all this means is that there is a growing awareness among at least parts of the Conservative party that they have only a narrow and rapidly closing window available to them if they want to prevent Scottish independence. They could very well come to the conclusion that their only hope of preventing independence is to agree to a Section 30 order shortly after next year’s Scottish elections so that they could fight their campaign while they still have a chance of winning it. Because the longer they stall, the more likely that independence becomes.
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