Nicola Sturgeon: 'Scotland must have the chance to choose' but will she deliver?
"Scotland must have the chance to choose."
Expect to hear this more frequently from Scotland's First Minister in the coming months. This is the battering ram with which Nicola Sturgeon will pound the political discourse as long as Downing Street continues to say no to another Scottish independence referendum.
Sturgeon is already moving her pieces on the board, circling a weakened Westminster, and getting ready to strike. "'Indyref2' is just over this horizon!"
At least that's how it is meant to appear to those who closely follow in line behind the SNP leader wherever she may take them. Take a few steps back from that perspective and you see Sturgeon has been leading her foot soldiers on this march toward the Promised Land for quite some time now with little progress to show for it.
There have been quite a few of these false horizons in recent times (moments that tend to coincide with SNP conferences and culminate with Nicola Sturgeon standing on the stage telling her party to 'keep going, it's so close!').
In the end, Sturgeon has delivered nothing of any substance by way of actually securing another independence referendum. Scotland is still in the UK; there is no Indyref2.
Nicola Sturgeon has proved herself a master of gestures, though. She has to keep the believers believing.
The SNP organised a 'National Conversation' about the merits of independence. Her party also published the long-awaited Growth Commission outlining the economic case for Scotland going it alone.
There were announcements about announcements on the ideal timing of another referendum, before we eventually heard Sturgeon commit to saying she would like to have the vote by late 2020.
Today, there will be a Ministerial statement in the Scottish Parliament about 'Scotland's Future' and a bill which will provide the legal framework for the holding of referendums within the control of the Scottish Parliament. This legislation does not set the wording of any proposed referendum question, nor does it set out a specific date because the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have the power to do that unilaterally. It’s another incredibly small and not-very-bold step on a long and drawn out path toward Nicola Sturgeon's promised Indyref2.
The FM is seriously dragging out the whole process. It's as though Netflix tied her into a four-series deal but she only has one real plot line and it's all becoming a bit repetitive.
To be clear, it really ought to be pretty simple. Nicola Sturgeon is the leader of a party whose raison d'être is Scottish independence. The SNP, with the support of the Greens, command a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP manifesto explicitly said Scotland coming out of the EU against its will would be enough reason to try again for independence from the UK. Sturgeon has already secured her 'parliamentary mandate' for another referendum after a vote in Holyrood. This is all done.
The one thing and - I cannot stress this enough - fundamentally the only thing left for Nicola Sturgeon to do now if she genuinely wants an independence referendum is ask the UK government for the necessary permission (in the form of a Section 30) to hold a legally binding vote. Without asking the question, anything else at this stage is just decoration. Or, perhaps, distraction.
The cynics say the FM is continually going through the motions quite simply because she knows the UK will of course say no to a late 2020 referendum if/when she finally gets round to asking them. Some believe she actually hopes they’ll say no. In fact, they believe she’s banking on it.
Yes, even though Nicola Sturgeon is a lifelong supporter of independence, she is also an incredibly cautious and pragmatic politician who already has a plan for the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. The argument follows that if the UK keeps saying 'no,' that will then give Sturgeon and the SNP a gift for the campaign trail in the 2021 Holyrood elections. "This is an outrage!" they'll protest. "A democratic deficit, so it is!"
"Oh, and by the way, the only way for you to tell Westminster just how much Scotland wants a referendum is to vote SNP again in these upcoming Holyrood elections." And that should keep the independence fires burning for another four years at least.
Another view of what Sturgeon is up to with her dilly-dally delays considers what would happen if Westminster actually agreed to let her have her referendum. It also considers what would happen if Scotland actually votes yes in late 2020. Nicola Sturgeon would still have to contest a Holyrood election in 2021, right in the middle of ‘Scexit’ negotiations with the UK.
These Holyrood elections might be seen as a de facto second referendum on independence and, if things are going badly at the negotiating table it could mean the SNP lose votes (considering lessons from Brexit, it is not inconceivable to imagine the UK government might make it its business to ensure the negotiations are going badly).
If the SNP lose seats in 2021, they could easily lose their thin pro-independence majority in Holyrood, which would then make passing ‘Scexit’ legislation in time for Independence Day extremely difficult, resulting in stalemate and requests for extension after extension (again, see Brexit).
In this scenario, it would be altogether simpler if any Scottish independence referendum were to happen after the 2021 elections. All of which Nicola Sturgeon may or may not be acutely aware.
If this is the FM's strategy, it is a risky one. Patience in the independence movement is wearing thin.
The UK government has a clear strategy to keep saying 'no.' It's working, so why change it? I am reliably informed they will indeed stick with this strategy until there are signs it has stopped working.
Nicola Sturgeon's counter-strategy to flat refusal is less clear. I asked her directly if she would consider challenging it in the courts to see if the Scottish government could circumvent the UK government and proceed without their permission - a strategy popular with many in the support - but she said that's "not anyone's preference." Instead, she prefers to just keep campaigning and keep hoping the UK government will eventually change its mind from 'no' to 'yes.' Why would they do this? Sturgeon believes it's an unsustainable position to keep refusing so they'll just eventually cave in.
Some have drawn parallels with this strategy and the UK government's thus-far unsuccessful approach to Brexit in insisting the EU would definitely blink first over the Irish Border issue, which has proved more of a wish than a deliverable plan.
After my interview with the FM when I pressed her on her strategy to deliver a referendum, I received messages from several parliamentarians and prominent pro-independence campaigners who expressed their frustration at their leader. "Hoping the UK will change its mind is not a strategy," said one MP.
Others predict rough seas ahead for their leader if she doesn't provide them with a referendum before 2021, and she ends up losing the wafer thin pro-independence majority at Holyrood at the next Scottish elections. That is, they say, when the party would turn on her for being so wasteful at a time Westminster was so weak.
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When she became SNP leader and Scottish First Minister in 2014, Nicola Sturgeon inherited a solid 45% of the country supporting independence, and momentum was on her side. After five years, support for independence is still hovering around 45%, with the odd peak at 48% or 49%. This is at a time of upheaval in the UK government that's seen two Prime Ministers quit, and amidst the 'Brexit chaos' Nicola Sturgeon and her party regularly speak about that's provided them with an open goal to remind us all Scotland voted Remain. Westminster has been ground to a halt in humiliating votes that can't deliver anything. In spite of all this - in spite of the complete mess in UK politics - Nicola Sturgeon still has not been able to convince an extra 10% of Scots that they’d be better off under her vision for independence.
It has also been noted by the foot soldiers that Nicola Sturgeon has been absent from huge marches in Glasgow and Edinburgh recently where tens of thousands were demanding a second independence referendum, and yet she found time to take to the streets of London to march for a second Brexit referendum.
Nicola Sturgeon didn't have to promise people in Scotland she'd deliver another independence referendum. It is expected she will keep her party energetic about 'the cause' but as First Minister of a country she could have looked at the challenges and conceded that maybe now is not the time. She could have said it would be better for Scotland as a whole to wait and revisit this constitutional question after the 2021 Holyrood elections. Sturgeon was not forced, but chose to tell her country time and time again, "There will be another independence referendum" and she will be able to deliver it because the "UK government will not keep saying no."
"Scotland must have a chance to choose," is Nicola Sturgeon's rallying cry these days.
The independence movement is starting to shout back, "Well get on with it and give us that chance to choose - if you really can."