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Nicola Sturgeon has made her much-hyped announcement on her government’s response to Brexit. Even by the extravagant standards of Brexit reactions, the First Minister’s was monumental in its irresponsibility, lack of realism and liberal offering of hostages to fortune.
She intends to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence “in the lifetime of this parliament”, which means by May 2021 at the latest. The pretext is to save predominantly Remainer Scotland from the supposed horrors of Brexit. Since Sturgeon also expressed her desire to save the entire United Kingdom from Brexit, that suggests she does not hold the institution of the referendum in great respect, despite her desire to hold one of her own.
She aims to pass framework legislation for a second independence referendum by the end of this year. The Scottish government does not need UK approval to pass such legislation, though she conceded it would need Westminster approval for the referendum to go ahead without doubts about its legality. That is pitching it mildly: a referendum unapproved by Westminster would have no more authority than an opinion poll and Sturgeon and her colleagues would be accountable for the taxpayers’ money squandered on such an exercise.
The first minister also announced her intention to establish a “citizens’ assembly” – which prompts the question: what is the Holyrood parliament for? Was it not originally hyped as the great popular forum that would give the Scottish people the voice they had supposedly lacked? The model is the citizens’ assembly set up in Ireland to promote the legalisation of abortion in advance of a referendum there. Such assemblies are safe forums of reliably on-message “civic” busybodies eager to run other people’s lives.
We have been here before. This is just the latest exercise in Sturgeon’s Grand Old Duke of York strategy; on this occasion she is marching up to the top of the hill of pointless referendum legislation to secure applause from the fundamentalist elements at the SNP conference to be held this weekend. She will ask Theresa May for a Section 30 order to pave the way for a second referendum, the Prime Minister will refuse and be portrayed as a pantomime villain (a role to which she is ideally suited and already accustomed) in SNP propaganda.
The last thing Nicola Sturgeon wants in the foreseeable future is a second independence referendum. In no opinion poll since March 2017 has Yes to separatism been in the lead. But there is very recent and more alarming (to separatists) data available that suggests support for independence is seriously in decline. It was indirectly exposed in a Survation poll conducted late last month for the pro-SNP Progress Scotland think tank founded by Angus Robertson, former Westminster SNP leader until ejected by an ungrateful electorate in 2017.
This poll did not ask the direct referendum voting intention question. While all polls asking the emotive question whether Brexit would make Scots more likely to vote for independence elicit a robust affirmative, the small print in the Survation/Progress poll revealed a different reality. On a graph of 1-10 charting the hardness/softness of separatist/unionist voting intentions, the pro-independence hard baseline registered just 24 per cent, the pro-union baseline 39 per cent. Among the gradations in between, the pro-union figures were also higher.
When the psephological geeks dived into this inviting play pit, they diagnosed the split as 37 per cent separatist to 63 per cent unionist. Even if that is an exaggeration, even if it is significantly inaccurate, it still reveals that independence is far from a majority position among the electorate and the all-important drift is in the opposite direction from that which Sturgeon needs.
And the SNP need is great and urgent. Sturgeon, due to election losses at Holyrood as well as Westminster, heads a minority government propped up by Green loons. Her party has been in government for 12 years during which it has presided over a serious decline in healthcare and – the responsibility on which Sturgeon asked to be judged – education. In the last PISA league tables by the OECD, Scottish schools had declining scores in maths, reading and science – the first time since 2000 when all three subjects were classed as “average”, with none “above average”. Scottish parents worry more about that than about indyref2.
Internally, the SNP is deeply split as a result of the Alex Salmond legal case, currently sub judice.
This supposed clarion call to independence by Sturgeon, as Tory spokesman Jackson Carlaw pointed out in his response, is designed to help her appease her party conference in a few days’ time. This is not a great historic gesture: Nicola Sturgeon is not waving but drowning.