On the steps of Bute House following the Brexit vote, First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon said there were “many people who voted against independence in 2014 who are today reassessing their decision.” She was right, I was. Many people I spoke to were, including many Conservative voters. However, the reaction in the heat of the moment changes after a period of reflection. Whilst many had the “horrible, sinking feeling” the First Minister describes, further uncertainty with the prospect of a second independence referendum isn’t easy to accept.
Sentiment has definitely changed, but current polling suggests it is not the decisive swing required to give SNP strategists the sufficient reassurances to push the indyref2 button. The First Minister is now setting out Scotland’s interests and how the Scottish Government will seek to protect them. Whilst being clear these are not ‘red-lines’ for negotiations, the First Minister is beginning to structure what interests need to be maintained if the SNP Government is not to opt for a second referendum.
For independence campaigners, this might be perceived as a detrimental dragging of heels and for the opposition it’s “a ruse for a separation drive”. For the First Minister, it’s a positive way to build consensus and simultaneously, put the ball in the UK Government’s court.
The First Minister has said that “independence was not (her) starting point” in the wake of the EU referendum result, but she is “a lifelong nationalist”. In holding this position, she is pursuing a twin-track of positively engaging with the UK Government to secure Scotland’s interests, whilst ultimately seeking to build consensus around an exhaustion of the options with the UK Government – independence will be the strongest recommendation she can make.
With reassurances of an all-nations, UK approach from the Prime Minister (but with no terms or limits), it gives the First Minister flexibility to raise the bar on what this approach actually means. The First Minister has already been happy to flirt with Carwyn Jones’ idea that all four nations need to be involved (read sign-off) on the actual decision to invoke Article 50, not just feed into the consultation to inform the decision. It’s a hair’s breadth away from a veto.
Ramping up the ‘asks’ of the UK Government to meet Scotland’s interests and pushing the boundaries on a UK approach, serves to buy time to build consensus and highlight divisions. The First Minister describes the need to protect the “democratic interest” in Scotland’s vote to remain, but how far can this be stretched? How far as she needs, it seems, whilst maintaining reasonableness. If the polls still don’t look good, the SNP still have an exit option. It won’t be very pretty for the First Minister, but further powers and devolution directly from the EU rather than opting for indyref2 takes the SNP a slip further on the constitutional slippery slope to independence.
When all the plays and counter plays are over and Scotland’s part is played in the EU negotiations, (but ultimately unsatisfactory for the SNP), will this even be enough for independence? It seems that Scotland’s calculation will still come down to ranking risk and uncertainty. Will the people of Scotland stick to an unstable UK or take an independent voyage of discovery?
There’s a long way to go and multiple factors to consider – primarily the UK-EU deal, any solid words Scotland can receive on EU membership, the performance of the economy. The case is far, far from won, so much so that there may not be adequate strength to even call indyref 2. But her argument will be that an independent Scotland is the safest and most prosperous option and emphasise the growing political and social divergence between the rUK and Scotland. The significant and material change of circumstances isn’t enough just yet, but the First Minister is again looking to deliver the consensus and electoral numbers required.