Next week’s Scottish National Party conference will provoke another flurry of speculation about the likelihood of a second referendum on independence, but it is unlikely we will get a date and it is possible the First Minister hasn’t yet made up her mind whether to call one at all.
Nicola Sturgeon needs to keep her party united so there will be plenty of strong words. There may even be a date for the introduction of an enabling Bill in the Scottish parliament. But that will not bind her to call a new vote.
Her speech in the last of our Politicians & Professionals 2017 series provoked the more excitable political commentators and journalists to see it as another step on the way to an inevitable second referendum.
I did not hear it that way, noting instead the careful qualifications it contained.
In introducing I asked her to confirm whether we would have a second independence referendum or not, adding “no pressure Nicola.” She clearly felt no pressure from me – or anyone else – to clarify her intentions. In confident and cheerful mood she upped the stakes: “I thought I would just take this opportunity to name the date….I see some journalists in the room.” She didn’t give a date, of course.
For most of her speech she concentrated on the very different approach to Brexit taken by the UK and Scottish Governments and the possibility that the repatriation of powers from the European Union might mean that some – over fishing and farming, for example – would remain with Westminster, rather than being devolved to Holyrood.
That, she added, would be utterly unacceptable and an attack on the foundations of devolution.
So, if that happened, would she call another referendum? Her reply was carefully nuanced: “if those circumstances arise, proposing a further decision on independence wouldn’t simply be legitimate, it would arguably be a necessary way of giving the people of Scotland a say in our own future direction.”
Note those phrases: “if those circumstances arise” and “arguably be necessary.” They leave open the possibility, but they are far from certainty.
Why might she want to delay a decision? One reason is that she cannot guarantee to win a second referendum. Opinion polls still show a majority for remaining within the UK. Calling another vote now carries a high risk.
At the DHI event Ian Doig asked the First Minister what her “Plan B” would be in the event of losing a second vote. She ducked the question, but she knows that Plan B would be a new job as a chat show host or something similar. Her political career would be over. She has the examples of her predecessor Alex Salmond and the former Prime Minister David Cameron to show that leaders who call a referendum and lose do not survive in power.
Andrew Wilson, the former MSP, who has been leading a “growth commission” for the party, told the BBC’s Sarah Smith that the economic case for independence a second time around would not include the over-optimistic projections for oil revenues of the 2013 white paper. Instead there would be the “difficult fiscal inheritance” from the UK – presumably meaning an independent Scotland’s share of the UK national debt and a budget deficit of more than twice that of the UK.
The growth commission will show that other countries have overcome similar obstacles to find a path to a prosperous future. Perhaps so, but the economic argument will be much harder to sell a second time than it was in the relatively benign conditions of 2014. The electorate was not convinced then; it will not be a quick job to convince them now.
The ground work will have to be laid carefully and the party will have to have a robust argument about what currency an independent Scotland would use.
A second reason the First Minister might want to delay making a decision is that if she wants to achieve the personal ambitions she has spelt out – reducing inequality and closing the educational attainment gap between children from poor and more prosperous households – she has a lot more work to do.
As Oxfam’s Jamie Livingstone pointed out in a later question, the latest Scottish Government figures show inequality is rising, not falling. The most recent education statistics also point in the wrong direction. The Scottish Government is vulnerable to the charge that it took its eye off the ball during the last two-year referendum campaign. Another campaign, especially of that length, would be highly distracting.
A third reason is that if Brexit is to be the “material change” which would justify a second referendum so soon after the 2014 vote, then it would be premature to hold one before the Brexit negotiations are concluded and the shape of the post EU world is clear. That will be at least two years away and possibly more.
As Professor John Curtice has pointed out, an immediate post-Brexit referendum would give Ms Sturgeon time to try to turn the polls around and avoid the divisions within the nationalist movement over the merits of being a member of the EU. A significant proportion of her own party voted to leave the EU. She has to keep them onside.
First published by the David Hume Institute