Sturgeon Consults the Calendar

The First Minister's statement to parliament was uncomfortable for her but at least gives her a deadline. In the light of which, suggests Richard Parry, political observers might like to look at a calendar.  
Sometimes politics is a matter of managing the calendar and electoral cycle. Nicola Sturgeon’s statement to the Scottish Parliament on 27 June was uncomfortable for her, not least because Patrick Harvie positioned himself as keener on a push towards independence than she was. But she does get 15 months of relief from further half-measures about IndyRef2 – and, as Gordon Wilson warned her in his last major political intervention  (Herald, 14 March 2017) ‘half measures will fail’.
The next SNP action will be its response to the situation in autumn 2018, and here the First Minister will be able to use one insight from her now-defunct statement of 13 March – that Brexit on 30 March 2019 will require an agreement in autumn 2018 to allow European ratification, so creating a political fact on which judgment can be passed. On likely prospects this agreement will include substantial roll-forward of existing arrangements under the guise of a transition or implementation phase. The length of this phase would likely make it impossible to hold IndyRef 2 before the 2021 Holyrood elections if you accept the 2017 Conservative manifesto wording that it must be delayed ‘until the Brexit process has played out’ or even, on some readings, the SNP text ‘at the end of the Brexit process, when the final terms of the deal are known’. But equally a long transition phase would minimise the incompatibility of UK and EU arrangements and so address the objection to the new SNP timetable that it cannot secure seamless EU membership for Scotland. In place of that unrealistic objective there could now be a strategy of getting back into something the UK would de facto barely have left and in the knowledge of Irish arrangements for a soft border.   
On present evidence both the Scottish and European dreams of the SNP are fading.  But, as the police like to say, this is a fast-moving situation. Should the political context change, a 2020 referendum could still be promoted on what Gordon Wilson called a ‘who dares, wins’ approach. Even if lost, it might have the consolation of sidelining the constitution and so facilitating an anti-austerity Labour-SNP coalition in 2021, on the model of Wales in 2007 and Edinburgh Council in 2012.
The electoral cycle, so vital to the political process, has been in little-noticed legal flux. Under the Scottish Elections (Dates) Act 2016 the next Holyrood elections will be on 6 May 2021 but this is a second one-off extension of the normal Holyrood term of four years set by the Scotland Act 1998 which remains in force (in contrast, the Wales Act 2014 extended the normal term of the National Assembly to five years). Under the 2016 Act the next Scottish local elections will be in 2022 after a five-year term but the term thereafter will be four years. At Westminster, the terms of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, which the Conservatives promised to repeal in their manifesto, now specify that the next UK General Election will be on 5 May 2022. To dissolve before that, a two-third majority of all MPs is required, or the inability of the House to give confidence to any government. With the management of time at the heart of the SNP’s approach to the referendum, the setting of the electoral calendar deserve more attention and debate.

Comments policy

All comments posted on the site via Disqus are automatically published. Additionally comments are sent to moderators for checking and removal if necessary. We encourage open debate and real time commenting on the website. The Centre on Constitutional Change cannot be held responsible for any content posted by users. Any complaints about comments on the site should be sent to

Richard Parry's picture
post by Richard Parry
University of Edinburgh
28th June 2017

Latest blogs

  • 10th August 2018

    Brexit is re-making the UK’s constitution under our noses. The territorial constitution is particularly fragile. Pursuing Brexit, Theresa May’s government has stumbled into deep questions about devolution.

  • 8th August 2018

    The UK in a Changing Europe has formed a new Brexit Policy Panel (BPP). The BPP is a cross-disciplinary group of over 100 leading social scientists created to provide ongoing analysis of where we have got to in the Brexit process, and to forecast where we are headed. Members of the UK in a Changing Europe Brexit Policy Panel complete a monthly survey addressing three key areas of uncertainty around Brexit: if —and when—the UK will leave the EU; how Brexit will affect British politics; and what our relationship with the EU is likely to look like in the future. The CCC participates on the Panel.

  • 2nd August 2018

    The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee issued its report ‘Devolution and Exiting the EU: reconciling differences and building strong relationships’. Discussing its contents, Professor Nicola McEwen suggests that the report includes some practical recommendations, some of which were informed by CCC research. It also shines a light on some of the more difficult challenges ahead.

  • 31st July 2018

    The politicisation of Brexit, combined with deteriorating relations between London and Dublin, has created a toxic atmosphere in Northern Ireland, says Mary Murphy, which will require imagination and possibly new institutions to resolve.

  • 25th July 2018

    Given that there are many policy differences between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK, asks Jonathan Evershed, why has customs policy been singled out as a red line by Unionists?

Read More Posts