Depending on your constitutional point of view, Nicola Sturgeon has either blindsided the UK Government with a great leap forward towards the promised land or has reprised her role as the Grand Old Duke of York to keep her agitated supporters on side.
Speaking at Holyrood yesterday, the First Minister said that the Scottish Government will legislate for a nonbinding referendum on independence to take place on October 19th 2023. Allied to this, the Scottish Government has written to the UK’s Supreme Court, asking it to rule on its legality. Hearings are expected to begin in September this year, with a ruling possible before the end of the year.
If the Scottish Government loses that court case – and indeed, the bulk of informed legal opinion suggests it will – Sturgeon said the next UK-wide General Election would become a “de-facto independence referendum”. Should the SNP and their fellow travellers in the nationalist cause, the Scottish Greens, win more than 50% of the vote, then they would claim that is a mandate to enter independence negotiations with the UK Government.
What does it mean?
Nicola Sturgeon has often been criticised by her nationalist critics for a tendency towards gradualism on the question of a second referendum. Yesterday’s move, a form of shortbread and circuses for the nationalist movement, has provided it with a renewed focus.
However, the legality of her gamble appear dubious. If in all likelihood, the Supreme Court rejects the Scottish Government’s legal case, the notion that a General Election result of 50.1% of the vote could be used as a surrogate for a legal referendum brings the SNP dangerously close to Catalan territory. Attempting to force the issue unilaterally has the clear potential to backfire both domestically and internationally – polling has suggested that just a third of Scottish voters view having a referendum anytime soon as a priority while the EU, as evidenced by its response to the illegal Catalan referendum of 2017, does not take kindly to separatist movements and potential membership candidates breaking conventional constitutional norms.
Sturgeon has in some ways amplified the element of risk which turned off so many voters from voting Yes in 2014. In setting out this breakneck timetable, it remains something of a moot point whether the Scottish Government and its civil servants will be able to provide a detailed plan encompassing currency, pensions, defence, trade, EU membership et al. given the many valid concerns which exist about their ability to discharge their relatively simple devolved obligations.
The UK Government remain implacable on the issue of another referendum and will likely use any Supreme Court ruling in their favour as the ballast for that opinion. The nationalists will obviously seek to spin this as the “Westminster establishment” keeping Scotland imprisoned in the UK against its will.
The unionist response will be interesting – while it would be easy for them to blank an unsanctioned referendum, they cannot do that to a UK-wide General Election. Arguably, they should pursue a degree of pugnaciousness to point out the flaws in the nationalist prospectus when it appears rather than simply ignoring this as a tantrum by a leader and a movement which has run out of road and ideas.
Equally, the return of the Scottish question as a key election issue at a time of rising English consciousness could give the Conservatives an unlikely boon in support. This is especially true if they are able to portray Labour and Keir Starmer as willing to form a “coalition of chaos” with the SNP – this is despite Starmer being at pains to bolster his unionists credentials during his time as leader. An overtly English campaign from the Conservatives would in all likelihood play very badly in Scotland to the detriment of unionism there.
Expect months of posturing ahead which will suck all the oxygen in Scottish political and public life towards it. Many will argue that this effort could be better directed towards some of the more pressing issues facing Scotland – it was not unnoticed that to make way for Sturgeon’s statement, a debate on Scotland’s drugs deaths was shunted down the Holyrood agenda yesterday.