Sturgeon’s referendum dilemma
Sturgeon's referendum dilemma
Nationalist delegates flocked to Glasgow from across Scotland on Thursday with a sense of expectation. The ‘material change in circumstances’ that Nicola Sturgeon – and the SNP’s winning manifesto – stated could trigger a new independence poll transpired in June. Scotland voted to Remain in the EU whilst the UK as a whole voted to Leave. Scotland is set to be, in nationalist discourse, ‘dragged out of the EU against its will’. The SNP leadership has, since June 23rd, erred on the side of caution. Their yearning for independence remains undiminished – however polls remain stubbornly in favour of the United Kingdom – losing a second referendum would kill the issue for a generation, and most likely Nicola Sturgeon’s career. However, when Nicola Sturgeon announced she would personally address the conference on its opening morning, commentators sensed a big announcement. The First Minister duly obliged in telling delighted delegates that she will unveil a consultation on draft legislation for a second independence referendum next week. The phony constitutional war, it seems, may be coming to an end. All of a sudden the prospect of a second poll on independence appears to be a very real prospect.
This presents immediate challenges for the SNP and opposition parties alike. In offering to publish draft legislation on independence the First Minister has moved beyond veiled threats of a second referendum. Theresa May has responded by urging the First Minister to respect the 2014 result – to respect the ‘once in a generation’ pledge she made to the country then. Importantly, Westminster could block a second referendum. It is not within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament to call one. Any natural temptation that Downing Street has to block a referendum, however, will likely backfire. Pro-independence MSPs are in the majority at Holyrood and standing in the way of the majority will of the Scottish Parliament would merely serve to hand Sturgeon further grievance to beat the UK with. The question is, can the SNP win a second referendum?
Trust in the polls?
Polls suggest not. The latest poll has support for the Union 9% ahead of that for independence, almost a mirror image of the 2014 result. An interesting, and unexpected, demographic shift in voting patterns since the EU referendum helps to explain the static nature of the polls. The 2014 No vote was largely as a result of middle Scotland. Concerns over the currency and the economy trumped arguments of breaking with the past and creating a better society. Working class Scotland largely broke for independence. The 10% of soft No voters that the SNP need to win over went on to resoundingly vote Remain in the EU referendum. They viewed voting to remain in the UK Union and then voting to Leave the European Union as intellectually incoherent. In the immediate aftermath of the Leave vote it is true that many No voters were aghast at the prospect and now, faced with a Hard Brexit, some are considering independence. This, however, is almost entirely cancelled out by Yes voters who see a similar incoherence in voting to leave the UK Union and then voting to Remain in the European Union. 37% of SNP voters voted Leave. A YouGov poll suggests that up to 10% of Nationalist Leave voters now favour staying in the UK out with the EU, over an independent Scotland inside it. The SNP – it seems –has made a potentially catastrophic misjudgement in not envisaging this before nailing their colours so firmly to the EU mast.
There is one strand of thought emerging from within the SNP which has been dubbed ‘neo-Independence’. It’s champion is former Government Minister Alex Neil. He argues that Brexit presents an opportunity for Scotland to secure major new powers for the Scottish Parliament as the UK repatriates them from Brussels. Nicola Sturgeon may yet fall back on this. Despite the challenges, however, the prospect of a Hard Brexit may yet lead a majority of Scots to vote for independence. The SNP say that the economic stability Scots voted for in 2014 demonstrably no longer exists. Post Brexit this is true. Scottish universities rely on EU funding and Scotland as a nation has a problem, not with immigration, but with emigration. The argument that Scotland needs the EU may yet win the day. Whatever happens, there is a consensus that the constitutional question will only finally be settled with another referendum. Increasingly the question isn’t if, but when.