Doubtless the verb was carefully chosen. She would “re-set” the timetable for a second independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament in Holyrood this week. Having initially demanded another poll between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019, she indicated another date with destiny would now wait till after Brexit. She would, she said, concentrate on influencing these negotiations mindful that Scotland voted remain by a 62/38% margin.
How much she can influence the Brexit deal is a moot point.The party she led to an historic 56 from 59 seats triumph in the 2015 general election won just 35 this time round. The SNP can claim, and they do, that they hold more Commons seats than all the other Scottish parties combined. That they remain the third largest party there.
But there is little evidence that Theresa May will be asking Nicola Sturgeon to pull up a chair at the negotiating table.For one the First Minister still openly supports membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union. It’s difficult to see how David Davis and she could make common cause with clashing agendas.
An alternative scenario is that in concert with colleagues from the Joint Ministerial Council, which embraces all the devolved administrations, she will try to influence and soften the UK’s demands Ms Sturgeon will also forcibly remind a now weakened PM that the Scottish Government produced its own Brexit Paper outlining a compromise some six months ago. It set out the case for Scotland remaining in the Single Market even if the UK pulled out. In effect the proposal would have left Scotland inside both the UK and the EU.
The short shrift given that document was what prompted the First Minister to propose a second referendum which she believed might give the Scottish government a window of opportunity to do some kind of deal with the EU before Britain was shown the door. Then came the snap election which shifted all the tectonic plates. Undoubtedly holding a delayed referendum after the ink has dried on Brexit makes a discrete Scottish arrangement less plausible. Which is why the Scottish government still has a Brexit minister keeping channels open in Brussels.
But anyone who thinks her statement to Holyrood this week is more than a pause in the campaign for an independent country understands neither the First Minister of Scotland nor her party, for whom independence was the founding raison d’etre. Her game plan now is to try and build a wider case for independence beyond the narrow focus of Brexit, and, indeed beyond her own party faithful. She calculates that there is still a healthy appetite for a Yes vote according to the most recent polling – if not for an imminent Referendum.
Conversely Sturgeon’s opponents argue that over 60 per cent of Scots supported unionist parties, (though that assumes a single issue was their only electoral motivation.) And Sturgeon is only too well aware Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson’s entire campaign was predicated on the slogan “No To Indyref2”, and it won her the Conservatives’ best result in over 30 years.
Yet Davidson too is on a less smooth path than it seemed on June 9th. 13 MP’s in theory should give her at least as much bargaining power in the May administration as the 10 strong DUP, though as a gay woman with an Irish fiancée you can’t imagine she is thrilled to be joined at the hip to a traditionally homophobic party opposed to same sex marriage.
But she’s already run into considerable flak in Scotland for not demanding a lift in the Scottish block grant proportional to the £1bn plus won by Arlene Foster. (Though the Scottish Tory leader is in rather less tartan bother over that ill disguised bribe than beleaguered Scotland Secretary David Mundell, who rashly seemed to have promised just such a windfall in a newspaper article.)
Davidson, a prominent Remain campaigner and supporter of the Single Market, will doubtless resist the call from the First Minister to join her in a pubic campaign to secure some kind of European membership for Scotland. But backstage she will be urging her colleagues towards a softer stance than the Brexiteers would like.
A “reflecting” Sturgeon, and a bullish Davidson are nevertheless in a happier place going forward than Scottish Labour’s Kezia Dugdale. Gaining an unexpected 6 seats was more than welcome, though they had 41 2 years ago. The electoral runes suggest that Labour voters, most especially young voters, were enthused not by the Scottish party but by a Corbyn tide washing over the border. Dugdale did not back him in the leadership election.
As the dust settles, we can be sure of only three things. A second independence referendum is off the table until the Brexit deal is done. There will be no bid to have Westminster grant permission for one in the near future. But the Bill for IndyRef2, already drafted, has not been shredded, merely left to simmer on the back burner. As one prominent BBC commentator put it: “Not so much a U turn as a tactical withdrawal.”
The final Brexit terms will determine how soon she risks calling another poll. But, having already gained parliamentary approval in Holyrood, she might well want IndyRef2 to kick in before the next Scottish election in 2021. Csn she win one in that timescale? All most of us have learned is the only predictable forecast is more uncertainty!
Published in The Guardian 29th June.