The UK Government’s latest announcements have cast doubt over the timeline for a second Scottish Independence Referendum, just days after Nicola Sturgeon confirmed she would be seeking to hold IndyRef2 between autumn 2018 and spring 2019. So when can we expect a second referendum? writes Ross Laird, Director of Public Affairs at Grayling Scotland.
The First Minister’s announcement on 13th March that she was seeking powers to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence resulted in flurry of speculation about when the vote might take place. However, today the Scottish Conservatives rejected the SNP’s demands and instead set out guiding principles before a referendum could be granted – including the conclusion of Brexit negotiations. The prospect of an early referendum seem all but dead. Nevertheless, despite Sturgeon calling for the referendum to be held before Brexit negotiations have been concluded, there may be benefits to the SNP holding back till a slightly later date.
About ten years ago I was asked by an SNP-supporting colleague when I thought a referendum on Scottish independence would be likely and could be won. I said at the time that early 2020’s might seem realistic, not realising at the time that the SNP were due for a huge rise in their popularity. However, despite all the events that have since taken place and current speculation about the proposed date for the election, my initial analysis may be more on the money than I perhaps realised.
Sturgeon painted herself into a corner immediately after the Brexit vote by outlining her demands for a second referendum if Scotland’s voice was not heard (ie if the SNP’s voice was not heard) in Westminster. Having been duly ignored, she has little option then but to crank up the pressure on Theresa May’s Government by calling for powers for a second referendum. Sturgeon can call for powers to be conferred through Section 30, but it is for the Prime Minister to confer them and May has already shown that she is in no mood to bend to the SNP’s will.
For the SNP, there are good reasons for their desire for a late 2018/early 2019 referendum – it would be before the actual Brexit (expected late March 2019), allowing for the hope that Scotland could remain in the EU and for the details of the ‘hard’ Brexit deal to be apparent. However, there are a number of assumptions built into this – most notably that Scotland would stand any chance of maintaining its EU membership (or early re-entry) and that Brexit negotiations had been concluded and were apparent. Both seem unlikely. Spain is sticking to its line that it took at the last election – no special deal for Scotland. Brexit negotiations are unlikely to be clear-cut and may not even be concluded.
Theresa May has already condemned Sturgeon’s demands as a distraction to the conclusion of an EU deal and she’s right – there can be little doubt that if Brexit negotiations are still on-going the UK Government could give a Scottish independence referendum anything like the focus it received last time. May and her Scottish Leaders have made it clear that they will not concede to a referendum before Brexit and has set out two further criteria for another referendum to be agreed – a clear proposition on independence and a demonstration of public consent for another referendum.
All of these point to a more likely scenario of a deal around a second referendum taking place post-Brexit in 2020/21. The next General Election is not scheduled until May 2020. Theresa May would surely far rather leave the thorny issue of a second Scottish referendum to take place after that date, helpfully giving her own Tories in Scotland a platform in the General Election. However, it also works for the SNP. A General Election would again give the Party a spring-board for an election. It would also enable the Party to engage with the EU and European leaders to set out a pathway for Scotland’s potential re-admittance and Brexit negotiations would be concluded. It enables the Party to present the Scottish Conservatives as deliberate blockers of the SNP’s ‘democratic mandate.’ With the next Scottish Parliament elections not scheduled until May 2021, it also enables the SNP to deliver a second referendum within the lifetime of the current Scottish Parliament.
My money’s on an autumn 2020 referendum or just after the next Scottish Parliament election if the SNP has the mandate – just as I said ten years ago.