There was a rare sight in Edinburgh today, according to observers, with a queue of hacks out onto the steps of Bute House ahead of Nicola Sturgeon’s press conference in which she announced she will push next week for a second independence referendum. That queue is symbolic. Of course, Sturgeon’s purpose is serious at root, yet it is also about attention-seeking when all the main action on Brexit is happening in Berlin, London and Brussels. Today was a “look at me” because “I am important” moment.
There will be plenty of time (several years) for in-depth essays and analysis about today’s events. Here are my initial thoughts:
1) Do not fall for the idea that Sturgeon does this somehow reluctantly, having sought a compromise deal with the UK government on single market access. She has to pretend to be reluctant to go for it, because there is limited demand from the Scottish public. Sturgeon has always been dedicated breaking up the UK. With voters clearly not wanting an early vote, she has to pretend to do it more in sorrow than in anger and to nurse grievance along the way.
2) It is all about timing. The Tory position is that there is no demand in Scotland for a referendum, but they have to be careful in how they say no, or not yet. If the Scottish parliament votes next week to seek approval from Westminster for a referendum, the risk is that even those Scottish voters who do not want an independence referendum resent being told no. If – if – Holyrood votes for it, and the UK government feels moved to concede a referendum, it controls the timing and the question. Number 10 and the Scotland Office are very clear on that.
3) Sturgeon’s position that the referendum must be held in late 2018 or by spring 2019 makes no sense, other than as an excuse for trouble-making. Brexit will be culminating then, and there is no way a responsible UK government could allow an independence vote at a critical moment. It is irresponsible to demand it. Wait until later in 2019 if it really must happen. But if the Sturgeon position is, as it seems to be, that she must go early because later will be too late and the UK including Scotland will be out of the EU, well, what are you waiting for? Why not go now? Answer: the voters don’t want it.
4) Will every SNP MSP vote for the referendum call in the Scottish parliament? Probably, and with the support of the Greens she can do it. But look out for an SNP rebel or two saying that Sturgeon’s timing is all wrong. Has Sturgeon fired anyone who might now cause difficulties on the basis they fear SNP defeat in a referendum? The SNP doesn’t do rebellions. They are forbidden – yes, really – by the party rules, but sometimes at historic moments when a leader is not really as strong as she looks rules are made to be broken by people settling scores. Let’s see what the next week brings.
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5) To her credit, Sturgeon took a lot of questions from the press, a habit some other leaders could learn from. Still, she looked nervous, as though she had been backed into making this statement and as if she knows it is a gamble. If she loses, she is done for. It was not a confident rallying cry. Her appeal rested on yet more grievance manufacture.
6) Unionists – as I argued in my weekly newsletter last week – should stop moping about and get organised. The economics of independence are even worse than they were in September 2014. Yes, it is problematic than there can be no-cross party campaign and the Scotland in Union outfit is widely derided. So, get on and take it over or do something else. Among the party leaders, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, is on fire. There are masses of people in Scottish civic life who do not want the end of the UK. The SNP relies on the idea of inevitability. Snap out of it. Get it together.
7) Will England and Wales care? This is a big unknown. I hope the answer is yes, but my impression is that all manner of people now really do not give a stuff after years of being moaned at by the SNP. A big cultural effort is going to be needed, again, in England to show that there is more to Scotland than Nicola Sturgeon and the whingeing Nat leadership.