Nicola Sturgeon’s letter of 31 March 2017 to Theresa May stated that ‘the Scottish Parliament has now determined by a clear majority that there should be an independence referendum’. That would now be the common assumption. But in fact the motion does not mention independence, let alone specify whether what is envisaged is independence within the European Union. It ‘mandates the Scottish Government to take forward discussions with the UK Government on the details of an order under section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998 to ensure that the Scottish Parliament can legislate for a referendum to be held that will give the people of Scotland a choice over the future direction and governance of their country at a time, and with a question and franchise, determined by the Scottish Parliament’.
The UK Government, if it is in a can-kicking mood, could quite reasonably complain that that this is too imprecise a request for a section 30 order. The one made on 12 February 2013 ‘un-reserved’ until 31 December 2014 ‘a referendum on the independence of Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom’ as long as no other referendum was held on the same day and there was only one ballot paper giving the voter a choice between only two responses. This formulation could be repeated, with only the date up for negotiation. Sturgeon’s letter cites the 2012-13 precedent, but does not exploit it to the full.
At the moment both governments seem to be complicit in each other’s hesitations, and this is only natural in a situation whether the result of a referendum could not be called with confidence. Alex Salmond’s notorious ‘once in a generation, perhaps once in a lifetime’ phrase of 14 September 2014 was hinting at a subtle point: that it was very unusual for the UK Government to concede that a yes vote would lead inexorably to independence, and it only happened because they were sure of winning. Indeed, David Cameron saw his political task as forcing the SNP into a straight up and down vote during their time as a Holyrood majority. After two gut-wrenching referendums the motif now is ‘please gamble responsibly’. Salmond said in June 2004 about the SNP leadership (misquoting General Sherman), ‘if drafted, I’ll defer’. His deferral lasted only a month, but this one could last longer.