A year ago I wrote about why Nicola Sturgeon was so chary of committing to a second referendum on independence. With the SNP hegemonic in Scotland but with Yes continuing to lag in the polls, I formed the view that Nicola Sturgeon would probably not seek an unequivocal mandate for a second referendum in the SNP’s manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood elections for fear of losing one. So it proved.
What has happened since then? Lots. First, the SNP surprisingly* failed to secure another overall majority at Holyrood. Secondly, Britain voted to leave the EU, against the wishes of the majority of Scots. Having campaigned for an independent Scotland in Europe for more than a quarter of a century, the SNP are facing both halves of that proposition being dismantled in the next couple of years if nothing is done.
Awkwardly, despite an initial spasm of polling support for Scotland going it alone in the wake of the Brexit referendum, that has now subsided and on current polling a second independence vote would also be lost. This has led many to suggest that the SNP should continue to stall on the idea. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon’s own behaviour has pointed in that direction, announcing the release of a draft bill to hold a second referendum but hinting that she would only hold one if Britain goes for hard Brexit.
Why is the independence cause not doing better, given that the SNP remain dominant in Scottish politics and the rest of the UK is going in a different direction? The standard answer is that it’s the economy. With the price of oil in the doldrums, the 2014 economic case has been much impaired. Meanwhile, Brexit makes it harder for an independent Scotland to maintain unimpaired its trading links with the rest of the UK: if it sticks with the EU, it could easily find itself on the other side of an economic Hadrian’s Wall in the event of hard Brexit. Received wisdom reckons that the Scots would not take such a risk and that a second defeat for a referendum would make the subject truly untouchable for many years to come. On that basis, it is reasoned, Nicola Sturgeon should continue to stall about calling a referendum.
Received wisdom on this occasion has the strategy 100% wrong. Nicola Sturgeon should now be pursuing a referendum as aggressively as she can. She has nothing to lose.
It is absolutely true that the economic case for independence has not developed to the SNP’s advantage. The important point which is routinely missed is that there is no reason now to believe that there will be a more opportune time in the future. And right now there are compensating advantages to holding a referendum that will never be repeated.
If a referendum on Scottish independence is held at a time when Brexit remains unsettled, Yes campaigners would have the unrepeatable advantage that there really would be no status quo -either future, whether Scotland in Europe or Scotland in post-Brexit Britain, would involve substantial disruption for the Scots. Why not, Yes could reasonably argue, get everything out of the way in one go?
Moreover, Yes could seek to piggyback off Brexit. If the English could pluck up the nerve to Leave, why shouldn’t the Scots now say Yes? After all, Remain warned of economic disruption, which Leave voters nonchalantly – perhaps too nonchalantly – shrugged off. Shouldn’t the Scots show similar backbone?
The power to call such a referendum is, strictly speaking, one for Westminster. It would be presentationally highly unattractive for Theresa May to be seen as blocking the opportunity for the Scots to have their say in very changed circumstances. The SNP would gleefully present this as a Scotland vs Westminster battle and in all probability a lot of Scots would agree.
A Scottish independence referendum could find Theresa May doing the splits in her negotiations with the rest of the EU and the campaigning for the union. She might simultaneously be seeking to negotiate soft Brexit with Brussels while warning of the effects of hard Brexit in Scotland. She would struggle to keep her credibility.
None of this means that Yes would win. Yes might well lose again. But if it was going to lose in 2019, it was going to lose in 2023 as well. Meanwhile, a Scottish referendum campaign would give all of Nicola Sturgeon’s Westminster opponents the most almighty headache. You should always do what your opponents least want you to do. On that basis, Nicola Sturgeon should go for it.
*Actually, I tipped this outcome at 8/1 on the morning of the election.