The First Minister still awaits a formal response from Downing Street to her letter dated 31st March, requesting discussions on a Section 30 Order of the Scotland Act that would enable a second independence referendum.
In full knowledge that such a request is unlikely to be granted in the short-medium term, Nicola Sturgeon has promised to come back to the Scottish Parliament after the Easter recess to explain how the Scottish Government intends to ‘progress the will of the Scottish Parliament’.
Despite Holyrood voting in favour of seeking a second referendum, Theresa May is resolute in her stance that “now is not the time”. So what can the Scottish Government conceivably do to bring about a legally binding referendum?
Hold a snap Holyrood election – in the hope to win a majority and further demonstrate the strength of feeling? The SNP already have a cast-iron mandate and the Scottish Parliament has spoken, so it is unclear what significant difference this could make, unless it was a proxy IndyRef2. It would also be pretty risky given Tory resurgence north of the border.
Hold an advisory referendum? The Edinburgh Agreement suggests that both parties agreed last time that a legally binding referendum required a Section 30 Order, which transfers powers to the Scottish Parliament to allow a referendum result that would not be challenged in the courts. An advisory referendum could demonstrate the scale of feeling on the issue of independence, but the precedent has been set, so what would be the point. The SNP couldn’t be certain that the population at large would take any referendum as seriously as the last one, and a simple boycott by Unionist voters would be enough to render it redundant.
Disrupt the Great Repeal Bill when it comes before UK and Scottish parliaments? The Great Repeal Bill may not be published until 2018 and given what is outlined in the UK Government’s White Paper on the Bill, it’s unlikely the SNP Group in Westminster will have much impact without support from Labour and minded Tory rebels. Trying to delay elements of the Bill via legislative consent motions in the Scottish Parliament would also not be straightforward, and would be disruptive to the SNP’s desired IndyRef2 time window.
Challenge the Section 30 request in the courts? The FM has alluded to this during her trip to the US. She has since denied any intention to do so, but that doesn’t stop an individual from seeking to test the issue in court. Any court decision may not be expeditious and would be challenged, so this wouldn’t fit with the First Minister’s desire to hold a referendum in autumn 2018.
The UK Government is confident that Brexit allows it to kick the Section 30 request into the long-grass, maybe even beyond the current Scottish parliamentary term. However, the SNP are not to be underestimated, the party has skilful strategists who will have explored all of the options, so presumably the FM has something up her sleeve.
The FM also needs to get the SNP’s domestic record back on track, recent economic data putting Scotland on the brink of economic recession is not going to help the case for IndyRef2 or the local elections in a few weeks’ time.
It remains unclear how the will of the Scottish Parliament is to be “progressed”, but there won’t be long to wait – expect the First Minister to resurrect her case after Easter.