It takes a nation of millions to hold us back

It takes a nation of millions to hold us back

Indy Result

Antifrank asks should the SNP commit to a second independence referendum?

Picture yourself for a moment as Nicola Sturgeon. Right now, she presides over a hegemony.  At every level of Scottish politics, the SNP has routed its opponents.  It has 56 out of 59 MPs.  It has an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament.  It has more local authority councillors than any other party.

And the SNP is strengthening its grip.  In the most recent local authority by-elections, it is recording bigger swings even than it achieved in the general election in May.  In the most recent opinion poll, the SNP polled 62% support for the constituency section of the Scottish Parliamentary elections for 2016.  Its dominance in the area is surely unprecedented anywhere in the United Kingdom.

For most politicians that would be more than enough to be going on with, but the SNP has a higher purpose: independence, and so far it has remained out of reach.  Alex Salmond has declared another referendum to be inevitable, a view shared by Angus MacNeil MP, who expects one before 2020.  One might think that Nicola Sturgeon would be gearing up for another referendum pledge for the Holyrood elections.  Yet she has so far been surprisingly chary about committing to this.

We know that Nicola Sturgeon is reserving the right to make the decision whether or not to include a manifesto commitment for a referendum for herself.  Before the May election, she told us that there has to be a substantive change in circumstances before a second referendum would be called.  But recently she stated that “if in Scotland we faced exit from the EU, effectively against our will – something which the polling suggests could happen – it would not be at all surprising if that caused a swell of demand for a further independence referendum.”

Given that it is far from clear that the terms on which a referendum on EU membership will be conducted will have been settled by the time that the Scottish Parliament elections take place next year, that suggests that Nicola Sturgeon is inspecting a hurdle that will not have been jumped by the time that the SNP manifesto comes to be drawn up.  If she is weighing a second referendum pledge in the next manifesto, that’s a decidedly odd thing to be doing.  So what exactly is she doing?

A picture tells a thousand words and this picture (courtesy of What Scotland Thinks) tells it all:

What Scotland Thinks

No retains a small but consistent lead in nearly all the polls taken since the last independence referendum.  The SNP’s huge popularity as a party has not translated into additional support for the idea of an independent Scotland such as would get them to Yes.  The SNP’s political hegemony would increase its chances but set against that the continuing low price of oil would make the economic case harder to put across.

Not only that, much of the public is in no hurry to think about the subject again.  There have been five polls since the last referendum asking respondents when, if at all, they thought the next referendum should take place.  In all five polls, around 60% of respondents who gave an answer preferred a date that is at least five years away.

So to call for a referendum in the course of the next Scottish Parliament risks alienating voters who really don’t think now is the time to look at this again and who in any case on balance are currently inclined to give the same answer.  Maybe the SNP’s superior campaigning would get them over the line, but failure would surely rule out further referenda for a generation, the length of which this time would definitely be determined by the unionist parties in power in Westminster.

Right now, calling a second referendum in short order looks like an odds-against strategy.  When you’re leading a hegemony, you don’t want to follow odds-against strategies.  Far better to try to advance incrementally, using your dominant position to frame the debate and change opinion over time, turning the odds in your favour.

This potentially gives Nicola Sturgeon a big problem because the one group of voters who really want a referendum as soon as possible are the SNP core voters.  If the manifesto for the Scottish Parliament does not include a pledge for a referendum, there will be uproar among the #45.  George Kerevan, SNP MP for East Lothian, has advised us to “Expect the SNP conference to fizz with the question of putting a mandate for independence into the 2016 manifesto.”

So Nicola Sturgeon has to decide how to keep her supporters happy while if possible avoiding a commitment to holding a referendum that she is more likely than not to lose.  Given her comments about the EU referendum, it seems that she may well be thinking about copying a technique drawn up by Gordon Brown and Ed Balls.  In order to forestall any attempt to take Britain into the Euro, they drew up a five point test to assess Britain’s economic readiness.  By placing conditions before the case could be made to the country, they put off the time of reckoning.

Unlike Gordon Brown and Ed Balls, who were privately opposed to joining the Euro, Nicola Sturgeon is undoubtedly keen for Scotland to go independent as soon as possible.  If, however, she puts conditions in the manifesto that need to be met before a referendum can be held, she can defer the decision until such point as she feels a referendum would have good enough chances of being won.

There is a fly in the ointment.  When Gordon Brown established his five economic tests for joining the Euro, Labour were in full control of any decision whether to hold a referendum on the  subject if the tests were passed.  The SNP do not have the same control over any decision to hold a referendum on Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom.  So even if Nicola Sturgeon declares that the hurdles have been cleared, David Cameron may disagree.  Even before the Holyrood elections next year, David Cameron has indicated that he is opposed to a second referendum taking place.  Without the clearest of mandates for the SNP to call for one, he will almost certainly feel that he can hold the line against one.   So a conditional manifesto commitment for a referendum is probably no better than no commitment at all.

So perhaps Nicola Sturgeon in the end will feel that she has to include an unequivocal manifesto commitment to demand a referendum on independence after all.  If she does, she will have been trapped into doing so by her party’s most fervent supporters.  If she felt that a second referendum was a worthwhile proposition in the short term, she would already have committed to giving the public the chance to vote for one next year.  That she hasn’t done this tells its own story.

It may take a nation of millions to hold the SNP back, but that nation is not England.


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