Scottish independence: Why Holyrood election is a phony war about a second referendum – Ian Swanson

Long before MSPs packed up and swapped the Holyrood chamber for the campaign trail, it seemed clear this election would inevitably be dominated by the independence question – except it isn’t.

Tuesday, 6th April 2021, 7:00 am

The word is mentioned often enough, but the debate – or rather the endless exchange of slogans – is not for and against, Yes and No, but instead focuses almost entirely on whether and when there should be another referendum on the subject.

The big issue of what independence would mean in practical terms, its opportunities and disadvantages, hardly gets a mention.

In the first televised leaders’ debate of the campaign last week, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross used every question to return to the matter of a second referendum, repeating his point that embarking on a fresh vote on the constitution would be divisive at a time when the country needs to come together to recover from the pandemic.

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Nicola Sturgeon, meanwhile, insists that Scots must have the chance to decide what path Scotland now takes in the recovery and that independence offers a better prospect than sticking with the rest of the UK, especially under Boris Johnson

And the SNP’s draft referendum bill, published just before parliament broke up, said a referendum should take place in the first half of the next parliamentary term.

But for all the apparent passion on display is this not rather a phony war?

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Independence supporters outside the Scottish Parliament in February 2020 (Picture: Andy Buchanan/Getty Images)

Why do the Tories argue a vote for them is essential to stop another referendum when Boris Johnson has pledged he will veto all requests for a fresh vote as long as he is Prime Minister?

And if the SNP believed there was really going to be a referendum within the next two years, would it not be eager to start setting out the detailed case for independence rather than just asserting Scots’ right to decide?

A month out from polling day, there’s still a chance that discussion could turn to the substance of independence rather than the process, but there’s little sign that’s going to happen.

However, both sides ought to be interested in getting onto the real argument.

For the Tories, their desperation to block a referendum makes them look uncomfortable with democracy.

And if the SNP wants to secure a strong Yes vote, it needs to convince people by answering the old questions that were never satisfactorily dealt with last time – like what currency an independent Scotland would have – and respond to new questions prompted by changed circumstances – like whether Scotland gets back into the EU after Brexit.

A lot has changed since Scotland last voted on independence in 2014. Some of the old arguments – about a larger state being able to do more by pooling resources or smaller states being more nimble to respond to situations – will still be there. But many others – for and against – will need to be re-examined, rethought and reframed to address the new reality.

This election is not a referendum on independence, but since that is the theme on everyone’s lips the voters surely deserve to be treated as intelligent adults and hear the parties’ updated take on the substance of the issue rather than empty sloganising and soundbites around another vote.

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