Angus Robertson: Westminster politicians are trying to buy time to stop Scottish independence
Angus Robertson MSP | Alamy
Scotland’s cabinet secretary Angus Robertson tells Adam Payne why he thinks Boris Johnson will be forced to hold another referendum, how the Prime Minister leading the unionist campaign would help the SNP and the delights of being reacquainted with Lego
It is “inconceivable” that Boris Johnson won’t agree to another Scottish independence referendum, says Angus Robertson, Scotland’s cabinet secretary for the constitution, external affairs and culture. Robertson, the Scottish National Party’s former leader in Westminster, was in a bullish mood when he spoke to The House from his office in St Andrew’s House, the Scottish government’s headquarters in Edinburgh, at the end of last month.
“That Westminster politicians are trying to buy time in hope that the issue goes away is clear,” he says. “But there will have to be a change of mind in Westminster, because maintaining their anti-democratic approach is just not sustainable.”
The 51-year-old’s prediction, though perhaps to be expected, gained added urgency hours after our virtual interview, when Alister Jack, secretary of state for Scotland, strayed from the UK government’s usual script in an interview with Politico to state that it would take opinion polls “consistently” showing 60 per cent of Scots wanting a fresh independence vote to indicate what his colleague Michael Gove described earlier last month as a “settled will in favour of a referendum”.
Jack stressed he did not believe these conditions had been met, telling Politico: “That’s not where we are and it’s not how I perceive things to be.” Nicola Sturgeon was quick out of the traps to shoot down Jack’s 60 per cent proposition, accusing him of “making up constitutional rules as he goes along”.
But it was the first time a UK minister had set a benchmark for what it would take to grant Sturgeon her wish, and came amid a strong belief within the SNP that the Prime Minister will increasingly face questions over when he will permit a new referendum, and how he can justify not doing so with the SNP now leading a pro-independence majority in Holyrood.
Current UK government ministers have privately told Robertson they expect Scotland to soon break away from the rest of the UK, claims the MSP for Edinburgh Central. It “wouldn’t be right” to name names, he says, “but the view that Scotland is likely to become independent is widely held and understood in Westminster”.
It’s fair to say it has been quite a summer for Robertson – even by the standards of the last few years in British politics.
Around 50,000 new electors come on to the electoral roll every year in Scotland
In May, the former MP for Moray was elected to Holyrood for the first time, chosen by Sturgeon to be Scotland’s cabinet secretary, a job which is “extremely exciting but very busy”, and had his second child with wife, Jennifer, in the space of just three weeks. “I haven’t really had a lot of time to spend on other things,” he says, laughing. “My daughters [two-year-old Saoirse and baby Flora] don’t give me the opportunity to escape! I have been reintroduced to Lego and a series of other toys and children’s TV programmes. But that’s not really an escape, more a new aspect of my life.”
But if Robertson is at all worn out, he does a good job of hiding it. He is bustling with the combative energy Westminster-watchers will recall from his years spent on the SNP’s House of Commons bench, which saw him routinely clash with ex-Prime Minister Theresa May during the Brexit years.
This past weekend, Robertson and his SNP colleagues gathered online for the party’s annual conference, with their push for a new referendum at the top of the agenda. The SNP wants Scots to go to the polls during the current parliamentary term, which is due to end in 2026, but after the coronavirus pandemic has ended. It would “actually make more sense from a unionist point of view” for the UK government to give in to the SNP’s wishes sooner rather than later, Robertson says, arguing that Scotland’s demographics are shifting in favour of the independence movement.
“Around 50,000 new electors come on to the electoral roll every year in Scotland and, as we know, younger voters are running between 60 and 70 per cent in favour of Scottish independence,” he says.
But what if Johnson doesn’t budge? Why would the Prime Minister give in to the SNP’s demands if doing so risks setting in motion the disintegration of the UK? Robertson refuses to entertain the scenario, insisting there is a political reality at work which, like a form of gravity, will be impossible for Johnson to overcome.
I would look forward to Boris Johnson having a very high profile during the next independence referendum campaign
If Scotland does have another referendum, Johnson fronting the campaign to keep it in the UK would be a gift for the SNP, continues Robertson. Polling has consistently shown the Prime Minister to be distinctly unpopular in Scotland, bearing comparison to Margaret Thatcher’s toxic reputation in the country. Johnson recently hired Lord McInnes of Kilwinning, the respected former director of the Scottish Conservatives who is credited with helping revive the party under the leadership of Ruth – now Baroness – Davidson, to be his Downing Street adviser on the union.
“I’ll leave it up to the other side to work out who will lead their campaign,” says Robertson, “but every time Boris Johnson comes to Scotland, he reminds a great number of people why we should be in charge of our own destiny, and why he’s not representative of the views of people here.” He adds, wryly: “I would look forward to Boris Johnson having a very high profile during the next independence referendum campaign.”
But if Robertson is right and there is a second independence vote, the Scottish government’s vision for how a Scotland separated from the UK would work in practice will be pushed under the glare of the microscope – perhaps no issue more so than its border with England.
Robertson with Nicola Sturgeon just after being elected to the Scottish parliament, May 2021
Robertson conceded there would be some sort of trade border between an independent Scotland in the European Union and what would remain of the UK. However, he stressed: “Our intention is to have as few impediments as possible.”
In the run-up to a new referendum, the Scottish government would publish a “detailed prospectus on all aspects of policy,” including trade between Scotland and England, which will set out in “great detail” the consequences of becoming independent, Robertson says. He adds that the real problem is the UK government’s insistence on a loose relationship with the EU which makes trade barriers more likely, as seen in Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit relationship with Great Britain.
If there is another referendum, Scots based elsewhere in the UK, and those living around the world, are unlikely to participate, Robertson says.
“I expect the referendum in Scotland will be based on the precedent of the 2014 referendum, which was based on residency, and which is also the basis of elections across the UK,” Robertson adds, insisting that calls for Scots living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to be allowed a vote have largely been from unionist politicians and commentators seeking to “gerrymander” the outcome.
“If one actually wanted to enfranchise all expatriate Scots around the world – and surely it must either be all expatriates or none – then I suspect they will be less keen on the proposition.”
Robertson, a veteran of parliamentary politics, is preparing for another momentous battle. He’s convinced not just that there will be another referendum, but that his side will win it.
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