When the Scottish National Party set the date of Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014, it did so with a careful sense of history. 2014 was, after all, the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, in which Robert the Bruce’s Scottish army defeated the much larger English forces of Edward II. Bannockburn was a monumental event in the history of the British Isles, one that cemented the existence of a separate Scottish nation, a perpetual thorn in England’s side until the two countries unified in 1707.
The SNP lost the 2014 referendum. Its tightness — 45 percent of the electorate voted for independence — led the party to believe that their eventual victory was simply a matter of time, that they would only have to wait until an older generation died off and a new one took its place, that the party would inevitably come to exert an ever-stronger hold on the Scottish national consciousness.
At first, these assumptions seemed reasonable. Under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP annihilated Labour in the 2015 general election, assuming a near-monopoly of Scotland’s representatives in Westminster. Britain’s subsequent vote to leave the European Union — as much an expression of frustrated English nationalism as one of Euroskepticism — provided a second opportunity for an independence referendum, and Sturgeon seized on it, announcing in March that she would ask Prime Minister Theresa May for permission to hold another vote before Britain exits the EU, so that Scotland might serve as its successor state within the union.
Then it all went wrong.
May, eager to capitalize on her ultimately fleeting political popularity, called a general election. In Scotland, the campaign between Sturgeon and the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson — Labour found itself languishing far behind in third — was fought over the question of independence. Davidson captured the admiration of those who wished not to re-litigate the issue so quickly, believing the 2014 referendum had properly resolved it for a generation or more. And as the SNP’s increasingly shoddy record on the provision and maintenance of public services came to the fore, the party suffered an electoral cataclysm, losing nearly two-fifths of its seats, while the Tories and even Labour markedly improved on their 2015 performances.
From the early morning of June 9 onward, it was clear that the second referendum (dubbed #IndyRef2 on Twitter) was toast. The firm democratic mandate Sturgeon previously held had fallen out from below her. Her party had won a plurality, but a majority of Scottish voters had cast their ballots for parties opposed to the idea of independence. Perhaps those voters support independence in some vague sense but would rather that their government got on with the business of governing, rather than agitating for another plebiscite. Perhaps they had simply gotten bored with the SNP. Their motivations do not much matter; the result they produced does.
For the SNP’s drubbing suggests that the massive electoral success of Scottish nationalism in 2015 was not a watershed moment indicating the imminent creation of a new political order, but a freak result generated by the heat of the first referendum’s aftermath. Bannockburn may have ended in Scottish victory, but the deep pulses of history tended toward England, in 2014 as in 1707.
The national question isn’t gone. It can’t be gone. The SNP still holds the reins of power at Holyrood, and the national question is central to its livelihood.
So there was Sturgeon on Tuesday, announcing that, contra the plan she unveiled in March, she would now aim to delay a second referendum until after Britain leaves the EU. With her share of the vote having fallen dramatically, she now wants to “reset” the national question while still remaining “committed strongly to the principle of giving Scotland a choice at the end of this process.” For those who believed the result of the general election struck a fatal blow to the of Scottish independence, this is a strong vindication. But they would do well not to get carried away in celebration.
The current state of affairs poses something of a conundrum for the SNP. It is, after all, called the Scottish National party, and its guiding principle has, for the many decades since its founding, been that of independence. Without the national question, the party has no justification for its own existence; it becomes a social-democratic party virtually indistinguishable from the Corbynite Labour party, one bound to struggle in Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system. (The SNP’s remarkable victories over the last decade are a historical aberration; Scottish politics has traditionally conformed to the two-party model, with Labour and Conservatives trading periods of dominance.)
So the national question isn’t gone. It can’t be gone. The SNP still holds the reins of power at Holyrood, and the national question is central to its livelihood. To let the national question fade away would be nothing less than political suicide.
But that doesn’t mean that a second referendum will ever actually happen. It certainly won’t happen any time soon. Sturgeon’s announcement amounts to a stalling action: She will refrain from formally proposing a second referendum until at least the autumn of 2018. Negotiations with Westminster over the authorization of such a referendum and its timing would take a significant amount of time, making it hard to imagine a second vote before elections to the Scottish Parliament in 2021. By then, the U.K.’s political landscape could look far different than it does now. The country may well have gone through another general election, and the SNP may well have suffered further damage in that election.
So who knows whether a second referendum will ever occur? It’s far more likely that Sturgeon, or whoever leads the SNP after her, uses the promise of one as a wedge in the elections to come, a means of whipping up enthusiasm among the party’s base. The referendum itself may be pushed farther and farther into the future, always to come after the next election, once the SNP has firmly cemented its democratic mandate. The future, then, looks like one in which the national question lingers like a malignant grey cloud over the country’s politics, always threatening to rain yet never doing so, coloring all other issues with its touch. Its influence may wax and wane, and other axes of political disagreement may emerge, but so long as the SNP maintains its presence in Scottish politics, it will not go away.