JUST a few weeks ago, May’s Holyrood election was shaping up to be an SNP landslide. Nicola Sturgeon looked set to be not so much re-elected as anointed, like a benign empress on course effortlessly to crush the puny rebel barons.

Support for independence was at a record high. Nothing, short of lockdown-busting revelations that she’d crammed the cabinet into her front room for pizza and Call My Agent, looked capable of shifting the dial on public opinion.

The Salmond stushie took the shine off things a bit, and the hulking ego of the former First Minister hoving into view on the campaign trail, followed by his band of misfits and malcontents, has cast further doubt on Ms Sturgeon’s prospects.

But worse even than that for the SNP is the latest development in the campaign: namely that in the midst of this absorbing drama, people have unexpectedly started talking about independence and in particular, what it would look like in the aftermath of Brexit and the pandemic.


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That’s bad for the party. Why? Because the reality of independence looks a whole lot less enticing than it once did.

Ms Sturgeon has committed herself to a referendum in the first half of the next parliament if the Covid crisis has passed, hoping to capitalise on the favourable polls, but it’s striking that support for independence has reached its zenith in the past year in the almost total absence of any debate about what it would actually mean for Scotland.

That’s a huge worry for the Yes campaign because their lead in the polls could very easily evaporate once people start thinking about the difficulties becoming independent and rejoining the EU would create.

Those difficulties are massive, thanks to Brexit. Notwithstanding his grandiose promises of frictionless trade, Boris Johnson has effectively taken British trade with the EU off the fast lane of the motorway and sent it across country on pack mules. Due to new non-tariff barriers interfering with trade, exports to the EU dropped more than 40% in January. Some of the reduction may be temporary, but the figure has shocked economists.

This may vindicate Ms Sturgeon’s assessment of Brexit as a colossal act of self-harm, but the bitter irony is that it also puts the SNP in a terrible bind. Ms Sturgeon says she wants Scotland to be inside the EU, but it’s the UK that is Scotland’s biggest trading partner by far, which raises the prospect of Scotland putting up barriers to trade with its main market in order to improve its relationship with another trading partner. Sound familiar? Sound bonkers? Of course it does because it’s exactly what Brexiteers advocated in leaving the EU.

I wonder what Ms Sturgeon felt when she heard herself uttering during Tuesday night’s TV debate that the EU market was seven times the size of the UK’s, without acknowledging that Scotland trades about three times as much with the UK as with the EU. Does she realise in whose footprints she treads? Is she OK with that?

How does an independent Scotland inside the EU minimise damage to the Scottish economy when there is a hard border with the UK? How would independence and rejoining the EU affect the finances of Scotland’s new sovereign government, if it ceased to receive its share of redistributed UK wealth through the Barnett formula and also became a net contributor to the EU?

These issues have been aired this week by the Institute for Government, which noted that there were benefits to being in the EU but that “the more integrated an independent Scotland chose to become with the EU, the greater the barriers to trade that would inevitably arise on the island of Great Britain”.

In short: you cannae have yer cake and eat it. Who knew?

The trouble doesn’t end there. There’s also the pandemic. The UK government has racked up an Everest of debt, a share of which the Scottish government would have to acquire while also setting up its sovereign institutions and seeking to reassure the international market about its creditworthiness. No oil money to call upon this time (there wasn’t last time either, as it turned out, but let’s not dwell on past indiscretions).

So how do you sell independence in these circumstances? Is it impossible?

No, not in an era when anger and identity are as potent as policy in determining the way people vote. The Brexit Leave campaign was also fighting an uphill battle, in similar circumstances, and it succeeded through a mixture of nationalist tub-thumping and monstering its foe.

But while that might sound like a good fit for the SNP, it isn’t: the voters they must attract to win a second independence referendum are precisely those fed-up Remainers who were sickened by the Leave campaign’s tone and tactics. These are voters who will check the small print. There are no wins to be had for the Yes campaign in bombast and jingoism.

And besides, the ballot-battered Scottish electorate are now wise to the overblown nature of campaign trail promises and to the vast complexity of constitutional change, having been through two referenda in seven years. They’re wary of “there there now” platitudes and use of the phrase “Project Fear” (copyright A. Salmond, leased N. Farage and M.Gove).

There are positive arguments to be made for independence. Many Scots (though possibly not enough) love the idea of being back at the heart of Europe.

Above all, the central argument for independence – that Scotland’s own parliament is best placed to make decisions affecting this nation – still holds true.

And Ms Sturgeon can rely on Boris Johnson to keep assisting the cause. Slashing aid to desperately poor children, festooning a vastly expensive new briefing room with the union flag and increasing the UK’s nuclear arsenal are moves that only serve to remind people how much they want shot of governments they didn’t vote for.


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But winning another referendum will be still punishingly difficult.

For the Liberal Democrats and Labour this presents an opportunity to sell federalism to voters.

For the SNP, instead of pushing for a referendum as soon as possible, they should be deferring for at least three years and in the mean time, working out how to sell independence without sounding like tartan Brexiteers.

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