“Politics is not a game” said the Prime Minister in response to Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement on Monday morning that she is planning a second referendum on independence. Or more specifically, preparing to ask the Scottish Parliament to agree to request a Section 30 order from the UK parliament, granting it the ability to hold a referendum. But it isn’t exactly ‘game on’ as yet.
For despite the glitzy press conference and the corresponding Twitter excitement, as thousands of nationalists fired off #IndyRef2 posts and memes, what the First Minister has done falls someway short of firing the starting gun, though the horses are in their gates. She has so far just confirmed her intention to hold another referendum and her belief that the ‘if’ and ‘when’ ought to be determined by the Scottish Government, a referendum “made in Scotland”. More controversially, she has stated that this “logically” must be held once Brexit means more than Brexit but before the UK leaves the EU; so late 2018 or early 2019.
Sturgeon is undoubtedly committed to an independent Scotland – something that she says “transcends” all other considerations – but is a canny enough politician to know full well that if she is to achieve her goal she only gets one (more) shot. Plus the precedent is now set that should she lose a referendum she’d likely also be giving up the keys to Bute House too. So she’s allowed herself wriggle room. Despite the promises that the 2014 vote would be ‘once in a generation’ the SNP, in their 2016 Holyrood manifesto had to allow for some ability for manoeuvre; especially following their General Election landslide which was coupled with an unforeseen (and in their eyes advantageous) Tory majority, with the EU referendum becoming a reality.
Accordingly, the ability to call for a referendum in the case of a ‘material change’ in circumstances was inserted, but on the condition that it would be held only if polling suggested the majority of Scots were in favour of independence. This bought time, and crucially could be used to quell the enthusiasm of those Nationalists desperate to give it another shot at a moment’s notice, those willing to gamble on what appeared to be narrowing odds but still looked never better than 50:50. Gambling men like former First Minister and racing pundit Alex Salmond; now languishing on the green backbenches, not King-maker to Prime Minister Milliband nor even SNP leader at Westminster.
Many ‘sources’ have argued that it was Salmond that forced Sturgeon to make Monday’s announcement, a week ahead of the SNP Spring Conference in Aberdeen. Salmond has been touring the broadcasters and briefing his friends in the UK media since the Brexit vote, not only on the inevitability of another referendum and a Yes vote but also the need for it to be sooner rather than later. Despite evidence to the contrary, he still believes a deal can be done to keep Scotland in the EU and as such sees a referendum pre-Brexit as a quid pro quo for achieving that aim. Autumn 2018 he told the media, and thus SNP supporters, that was when it would be.
Like the SNP Depute and Westminster Leader, Angus Robertson, Salmond believes the greatest opportunity for independence lies in Brexit. Particularly so-called ‘hard Brexit’. The phrase “Scots being dragged out of Europe” has been repeated ad nauseum at PMQs and FMQs but unfortunately for the SNP the correlation between the high Remain vote and a willingness for independence in Europe may have been overstated.
First there’s the issue of turnout. In the Scottish referendum it was a staggering 84.6% while only 67.2% voted in the EU referendum, 5% below the UK average. Secondly, of those that did approximately a third of ‘Yes’ voters also voted ‘Leave’. Independence in Europe is not quite as attractive as the SNP leadership once thought – indeed former leader Jim Sillars announced he would not vote for independence in a further referendum if it meant re-joining the EU. This feeling was given new voice a mere day after the First Minister’s semi-announcement when the Scottish Social Attitudes Annual Survey found a record 46% supporting independence (still well short of a majority) but equally 25% wanting to leave the EU and crucially a further 42% wanting to reduce its powers. Scotland as fully engaged participant in an ever closer European Union didn’t seem quite the vote winner. Furthermore polling suggest even many SNP voters would rather wait.
The result has been some readjustment in the SNP’s position. Angus Robertson MP telling the Prime Minister at PMQs that if Scotland (or the UK) remained in the single market then an independence referendum would not be required; Fiona Hyslop MSP, Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs on the BBC refusing to commit to whether Scotland would apply to re-join the EU; and Nicola Sturgeon stating her commitment to the EU in the long term but proposing the option of EFTA or EEA membership in the context of a half-way house. She also was swift to criticise the PM for suggesting that agricultural and fisheries powers coming back from Brussels may be determined by Whitehall and not Holyrood, calling it an attack on devolution. Unionists asked why it mattered if she was so keen to see them repatriated to the EU following independence.
The result is what we call in Scotland a ‘guddle’ – a mess of colliding thoughts and views with little clarity. But until Thursday few doubted the ball had been set rolling for #indyref2 or #Scotref as the SNP announced it would prefer. The Scottish media, starved of little but constitutional scenario planning, got excited. So undoubtedly the Prime Minister’s reaction was a surprise.
“Now is not the time.” was typically vague, but it was swiftly clarified as an objection to any Independence referendum before Brexit negotiations were complete, and it was suggested realistically post the 2021 Scottish elections. The PM clearly felt that the mood of Scotland, for once, was not with Ms Sturgeon and thus is prepared to play hard ball.
This puts the SNP in a quandary. The Prime Minister’s apparent refusal to grant the Section 30 request that Holyrood will no doubt agree to this week (thanks to the Scottish Greens) gives the SNP the ultimate grievance, the perfect axe to grind about how unfair the UK government is; Scotland once again being ignored and thwarted. Even the Church of Scotland waded in to say that refusal would not be a “democratic” position. Yet if the PM holds firm it’s the get-out-of-jail card for Sturgeon. An ongoing constitutional crisis where she remains FM, is a thorn in the side of May, stokes up resentment about the Brexit negotiations and bides her time until an outraged Scotland and war weary Westminster collide in a referendum she can win.
But that may be wishful thinking. Many have talked about peak SNP and with local elections in May this year that theory will be tested. It’s true that many SNP voters are disillusioned by a government they feel is concerned only with independence at any cost and the continued rise of the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson shows no sign of stopping, as more and more traditional Labour voters turn away from Kezia and Corbyn to the party with Unionist in its name. If the Brexit deal is half as attractive as the Cabinet suggests it will be a hard task for the SNP to persuade Scots to reject the devil they know for the rule of Brussels, while ‘hard independence’ – outwith the UK and EU – remains a minority interest. May’s hold on the referendum also guarantees a sustained period of Westminster wooing, with soft-power wielded to persuade Scots of the value of the Union.
May’s strategy may well work. It gives the SNP enough rope to hang themselves should they decide to call a unilateral referendum that Unionists will refuse to participate in, or more feasibly another Holyrood election to try to give the SNP a majority once more and a clear mandate for a referndum. But both are hugely risky. Scotland appears to have had its fill of referenda and any such move would prove the SNP are a party that is interested only in independence at any cost. Furthermore the longer the SNP have to govern rather than campaign the greater opportunity for the now official Conservative and Unionist opposition to shine a spotlight on their failings and build credibility as an alternative Government. The chances of the SNP gaining a majority again at Holyrood are categorically not in their favour.
As has been so often the case, Mrs May has proven to be a dark horse. Less afraid of the SNP and more committed to the “precious, precious Union” than many expected. By holding her ground she’s taking a risk but in doing so this dark horse may well expose the SNP to be a mere one trick pony.