With a flourish, Scotland’s First Minister has taken a referendum off the table in 2017. Her announcement has gained attention out of all proportion to its relevance to reality. There could not be a vote this year. The enabling legislation being planned by the Scottish government will not be ready in time, and in law, if not in practice, the granting of a referendum is a Westminster not Holyrood decision. But a poll conducted by BMG and published recently demonstrates that Scottish voters are clearly opposed to an immediate vote, with 61% against a referendum taking place this year.
Perhaps this is because with so much going on in the world – Trump, Russia, Brexit – even hardened Scottish Nationalists can see that there might be other priorities. Voters are fatigued too. Add to that the failure of the SNP to make any progress on constructing a coherent economic case for a split with the the UK – where 64% of Scottish exports go – and the Nationalists could lose. They have still not resolved the currency question that did so much harm to their campaign in 2014. And in agitating to stay in the EU Single Market, while the UK leaves, they propose an unworkable compromise that there is no way Spain (with its own separatist problem) will agree to.
But Sturgeon – barring the emergence of an escape route or a crisis causing a diversion – will almost certainly have to hold a referendum before Brexit is implemented, or look very silly indeed. Only a day before she confirmed there would be no vote in 2017, she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that she was “not bluffing” about her commitment to hold a vote at some point. All summer and autumn SNP panjandrums boosted the profits of the airlines shuttling to Brussels and elsewhere making the same vapid remarks about how they would not put up with Brexit. The Nationalist movement has been marched up and down the hill on this more times that the army of the Grand Old Duke of York.
Sturgeon’s problem is that if she goes for it and loses the precedents are not good and the potential for ridicule is immense. In Quebec in Canada eventually the voters had enough of the seperatist obsession and the “neverendum”. There is an over-excited wing of former sensible people in the SNP that want to just keep trying over and over again. “Who says it’s like Quebec? We can try as often as we like,” one Salmondite told me late last year on a trip to Scotland. It is the old hardliners – the so-called fundamentalists or “fundies” – that now recognise that is a foolish approach. Realistically, the SNP has one more go this generation at getting what it wants and cannot say, like a losing gambler: “Okay, best of three.. no… make it best of five.”
Sturgeon wants independence every bit as much as the hardliners in her party, of course. She is a full-blown proper nationalist and has been since her youth. But she is also a practical politician with a justified fear of losing and a historical legacy to worry about. That means she must, as Alex Massie put it in The Spectator, play for time and look for a moment of maximum opportunity when the electorate might ignore the negative economic arguments.
Although her party and wider movement is tightly controlled and banned from dissent (precisely because the leadership group fears having it any other way) she serves at its pleasure. The SNP – as it has shown with it atrocious record on a subject such as education – is really about one policy: independence, at all costs. To people of that mindset, Sturgeon has been given the tools, with a virtual wipeout of Scottish seats at Westminster and control of the Scottish government machine. Now finish the job, is their mantra, whether the voters want it finished or not. The patience of excited activists is not limitless and waiting until after Brexit makes the process of readmission to the EU more complex. It looks then like an independence referendum in 2018, because by early 2019 Brexit (or the conclusion of the Article 50 process) will have happened and the moment will be gone. The window for Sturgeon pre-Brexit is 2018.
What happens then? A fight – as one of the veterans of the 2014 Scottish referendum puts it – that will make the last campaign look like a model of politeness. Unionists had better start getting ready.