It was a week of politics no one envisioned moving – firstly Nicola Sturgeon’s fresh bid for a Scottish freedom election, second Theresa May’s response of “not now”. Here, I reflect on the actions of two ordinarily prudent political leaders taking what could prove to be the biggest of gambles.
Ms Sturgeon upstaged the prime minister in what was meant to be a characterizing week of her authority, as the greenback returning her permission to trigger Article 50 and starting the Brexit process was legislated. Indeed, numerous had expected Article 50 to be triggered in the days following Ms Sturgeon’s announcement.
Thanks to the first minister’s drastic intervention, even as the Brexit bill received Royal agreement Mrs May was drafting a statement about Scottish freedom – not the constitutional issue she had hoped to be focusing on.
Mrs May’s response was equally calculated to upstage Ms Sturgeon; her testimony was recorded while the first official was on her hoofs during her weekly theme discussion at Holyrood, and broadcast to the world the hour she sat down.
And it came on the eve of the SNP’s conference in Aberdeen, which intent up being dominated by the constitutional question – and not entirely in the campaign-rally mode Ms Sturgeon would have wanted.
What does Mrs May’s announcement mean?
The phrase she was keenest to use “now is not the time” – but significantly she didn’t reply “never”. So if not now, when?
Has she accepted that there will be an liberty referendum sometime after Brexit?
Both areas say they crave the Brexit picture to clear up, so they can offer voters an “informed choice”. The segment is over when they believes that there will happen.
Ms Sturgeon accepts the substantive shape of the Brexit deal should be set in stone by roughly the Autumn of 2018, six months before the conclusion of the two-year Article 50 “window” – or at the least following the completion of alleged opening in Spring 2019.
But the Westminster government contend that there will only be an informed look of the post-Brexit Union some time after the UK have in fact left the EU, formerly trade bargains have been hammered out and the new arrangements have had time to “bed in”.
They don’t want to get into speculation about what year that are likely to, but on those words it doesn’t seem likely a new poll could happen anytime before late 2020.
The Europe question
Might get the Brexit process over and done with help the SNP and the pro-independence surface?
Whether or not an independent Scotland would be a full member of the EU has been growing something of a headache for Ms Sturgeon already.
It now seems clear that Scotland is leaving the EU, regardless of when a referendum is contain and whether it is won.
This will satisfy the various SNP members who supported Brexit – such as former cabinet secretary Alex Neil, who has warned Ms Sturgeon against having a “premature” referendum.
It seems that the SNP still want to target EU membership, somewhere down the road – but might take a step-by-step process towards that, perhaps through the European Economic Area.
Conducting a vote during the Brexit process obliges that meaning harder to sell – parties will wonder why it’s so important to harbour a referendum before the UK leaves the EU, if Scotland is to leave regardless of the outcome.
However, there is one other dimension to Brexit: formerly the UK has left, EU nationals living in Scotland might not be able to vote in any new referendum – potentially a key demographic for the pro-independence surface, underlined by the SNP conference motion aimed at protecting their franchise.
The Will of Parliament
The Scottish government now highlights the fact that the Holyrood vote on a Part 30 tell is more important than ever. In the end, it was the focus of Ms Sturgeon’s big conference lecture.
But Mrs May’s response assumes that this vote will be approved. Ms Sturgeon doesn’t take this for awarded, but it should be in the bag – the Greens will back her, so if everyone turns up there is a 69 to 59 majority for independence.
In any case, the Presiding Officer has already confirmed that votes on motions like the one to be debated over 2 day are not binding. The chief item tallied will be political.
After all, Holyrood has already voted against triggering Article 50, and that seems to be going ahead regardless.
And in some ways the SNP should be glad. The opponent have ganged up on them several times this word already – should they have to bow to “the will of parliament” all the time, they would have had to repeal the football number, ban fracking, leave Highlands and Islands its own card and accept that they are “failing coaches, parents and pupils”.
There are still some party-political elements amid this splendid constitutional row.
In particular, it has cast the SNP and the Conservative as the two big-hearted actors in Scottish politics. A freshly confident Scottish Tory movement remains firmly cemented its position as the working party of the union, while the SNP are the ones taking the fight forward for independence.
Labour and the Lib Dems are left a relative afterthought on the unionist side; the Greens equally so on the liberty surface. Ms Sturgeon’s discussion lecture moved scant mention of those other parties – even Labour, the staple punching-bag of any SNP conference – while hammering away at the Tories.
This could have a knock-on effect in particular by the human rights council polls – the Greens had been campaigning hard for that vote to be about local problems, but it’s difficult to imagine constitutional question won’t predominate on the doorsteps now.
Ms Sturgeon highlights the fact that she has a “cast iron mandate” to push for a referendum thanks to the scenario sketched out in the SNP’s 2016 election manifesto, which has come to pass with nearly ghostly accuracy.
But the Reactionary “re saying that” the SNP didn’t acquire majority decisions in that election – ignoring the fact the Holyrood electoral system is designed to make an outright majority more or less impossible.
Most of the “mandate” debates are similarly obscure. “Theres” spots for both sides to score.
The SNP triumphed a bigger percentage of the Holyrood constituency vote than the Tories took in the last Westminster election – and of course Mrs May’s government has a single MP north of the border.
However that was a UK election, just as the EU referendum was about the UK’s membership of the European club. And in that referendum, as many parties voted Leave in Scotland as voted SNP a few weeks earlier( both representations exactly over 1m) – and both of those figures are dwarfed by the figure who voted No in 2014.
David Mundell said he didn’t wishes to get into “my mandate is bigger than your mandate”, and he’s maybe right – there’s enough ammunition for each side that this is not the field where the battle will be decided.
At the end of the working day, there will be only one question that matters – and it will be a word of “should Scotland be an independent country? “
Theresa May’s calculation is that she won’t push too many people towards eventually refuting that interrogate with “Yes” by stymie the vote in the short term.
The SNP will welcome her repudiation as a campaigning tool, if nothing else. And perhaps putting occasions back a bit wouldn’t be the worst occasion for the objectivity campaign.
Nicola Sturgeon’s original preferred timetable, before all of this Brexit business happened, would have been a referendum sometime around 2020 – after the next Westminster election, but before the next Holyrood one.
The calculation would be that this will see another Tory government recalled at Westminster( polling suggests the hasten there is about as close as the current Scottish Premiership season ), earmarking the SNP to hammer away with their ‘ruled by a Tory authority Scotland didn’t vote for’ narrative.
And it would commit Ms Sturgeon more time to work on difficult financial polemics – there remain a lot of questions over things like money which remain unanswered.
The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey proposes support for independence is clambering fairly steadily – but it has not yet reached the majority.
As polling leader John Curtice supposed: “Nicola Sturgeon might have been wiser to have stayed her hand, for on continuing trend there is a real potential that demographic change will help produce majority decisions for sovereignty in the not extremely distant future anyway.”
Breaking the impasse
So how will all this be resolved? At the moment, it seems like the two sides are locked in a little bit of an impasse.
Could the SNP plough onward and maintain an “unauthorised” referendum? Perhaps, but it would be even more of a risk – such a election could get tied up in the courts before the ballots is furthermore printed. Numerous at the SNP conference talked about how there “will” be a referendum but Scottish government officials say this is more because Mrs May’s position is untenable, rather than a signal towards an advisory vote.
In the aftermath of Mrs May’s statement, someone wryly observed to me that “maybe we should have a referendum on whether or not we have a referendum”.
Is there a path who are able to happen? In a way it could, if the SNP were to sink their own government and pushed forward a snap poll on a very concrete stage of nursing a new referendum swiftly afterwards.
That would seem a preferably unlikely scenario, for many of the reasons outlined above – there is no Ms Sturgeon could be sure she would triumph such a vote. If indyref2 has the air of a do or smash instant for her leadership, such an election would be doubly so.
But there is another significant Holyrood vote on the horizon – on the UK government’s so-called “Great Repeal Bill” as part of the Brexit process.
The UK government has already had reaffirmed that the Scottish Parliament’s consent should be sought for that legislation.
Given the pro-independence majority, Holyrood could very easily withhold that assent. And while the Supreme court has noted that the Scottish Parliament can’t legally derail Brexit via judicial consent, MSPs could generate Mrs May a excellent headache from a political perspective.
Ignoring a legislative agree election would be of far greater meaning than discounting the non-binding flow on Division 30.
So the content could be, “give us your referendum, and we’ll give you your clean Brexit” – paving the room for a referendum sometime in 2019.