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.