“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen”.

I’m not one for living by the words of Vladimir Lenin, but they do feel particularly appropriate for our times. The approval of the UK’s most voluminous vaccine, aimed at ending the once-in-a-century pandemic, followed hot on the heels of the approval of the trade and security deal struck between the European Union and its first ever departing member, the UK.

We live in historically significant times. However, momentous as both of those events may be, we are about to face a larger one. It may seem counterintuitive – hyperbolic even – to suggest that the Scottish Parliament elections in four months time carry the same level of importance as coronavirus and Brexit, but they do.

In fact, they are more important, and may have more enduring consequences than both. Thursday 6th May will either be the last election to a devolved Scottish Parliament before Scotland becomes independent, or it will be the last election to a devolved Scottish Parliament where independence is a significant issue at the ballot box.

This is the end game – a political title-decider. The field of play looks unremittingly bleak for Scotland’s unionists. That assessment is not based solely on the headline polling numbers, grim as they are (Yes led in 19 of the 23 polls conducted last year, the two in which No led were by a one per cent margin, and one of those excluded 16 and 17-year-olds).

It is what lies beneath that should worry unionists most. In the first referendum, in 2014, the No vote relied on those with good jobs, good prospects and some money in the bank. Not so now; Yes has a handsome lead over No in the ABC1 social class groupings, according to all pollsters.

Gender has historically played a role in independence voting intentions, with women thought to be more risk-averse, and tending towards a No vote. No more; women now lead with every pollster, in some cases by double-digits.

The age profile of No voters is one of those “look away now” moments for unionists; No leads only in the age group nearing retirement or older. Less than one-in-five under 25s will vote No. Should the referendum take place in 2024, for the sake of argument, those aged six at the 2014 referendum will be eligible to vote. Current patterns suggest almost all of them will vote Yes.

There is no inevitability about this, though. The situation has arisen, in my opinion, largely as a result of push-factors rather than pull-factors. In other words, some of those who would previously have voted No have switched to Yes because of negativity towards the UK rather than positivity towards Scotland. 

Brexit? Boris? Covid? Probably all three, and probably a whole lot of other reasons. It is important. Many potential Yes voters are not emotional nationalists; rather, they are pragmatically and clinically assessing life in an independent Scotland as being, on balance, better than life in the UK. 

He or she who is pushed away can be pulled back. But it will require the UK Government and its ruling Tories to make a series of radical changes which they have thus far shown themselves unwilling to do, or unable to do, or perhaps both.

Truthfully, I don’t know if they have it in them. I read an article at the weekend on a prominent Conservative blog in which the writer surmised that Scottish MPs could be made to like being at Westminster so much that independence could be stopped in its tracks. It was yet another “Do these guys have any idea?” moments, of which I experience many.

There is a difference between unionist leaders and nationalist leaders. Nationalist leaders, unlike their foot soldiers, are clinical rather than emotional. They make decisions and create policy which they may personally find unpalatable, and which their supporters certainly do, because they know it will help them win (do you really think they want the Queen as head of state? Come off it.)

Unionist leaders, on the other hand, are as emotional as the foot soldiers. They spend their time bleating about ‘our precious Union’ and concocting various plans for how a referendum can be avoided that they never ask themselves the question: how are we going to win?

If they ever get around to doing so, they will understand that the answer is: by doing things we don’t like.

The central tenet of what should become the new platform of the UK Government is a great programme of decentralisation. They can call it what they wish – home rule, federalism, devo max, devo plus. That’s a job for the advertising agency. What matters is what it means.

It means that people in Scotland are no longer forced into a binary choice of being a nationalist or a unionist. I don’t identify as either, and I’d bet the house that I am not alone.

It means that Scots can choose the future that, until not so long ago, polling identified was the one they preferred – running almost all of their own affairs but within the context of a more powerful, but looser, UK.

It means that the problems which have scarred Scottish devolution will not be experienced in the other parts of the UK, which are on the same journey, but further behind.

And it means that, for perhaps the first time since devolution, unionists will hand nationalists a poisoned chalice rather than a golden ticket.
They don’t have to like it. But they do have to do it. The unionists, after all these years of applying sticking plasters to compound fractures, have run out of road. 

• Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters

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