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Nicola Sturgeon’s Lonely Decision

Published: 11 October 2016

James Mitchell (@ProfJMitchell) discusses how Nicola Sturgeon’s decision on the timing of the independence referendum is likely to be the most important of her leadership. This post originally appeared on the Academy of Governent blog.

One issue will dominate discussion at the SNP conference in Glasgow this week, though not on the floor of the conference. The decision on when a second independence referendum is held is in the hands of Nicola Sturgeon alone. The SNP leader has no intention of allowing party members to make that decision. She will listen and consult, consider evidence and then make her decision. She has the strength to resist being rushed into a decision against her better judgment and she will, no doubt, have evidence (including polling) to which her party and the wider public are not privy.

The problem is that no evidence can ever be foolproof. There is always a gamble in calling an election or referendum. Polls currently give an indication of current public opinion but campaigns matter as recent referendums have demonstrated. One difficult question for her to ponder is whether the odds are likely to improve or deteriorate over the course of time.

The odds of victory may be greater now than they were when she was given responsibility for leading the SNP’s case for independence in September 2012 but that does not make victory certain. Support for independence was then sitting at just over 30%. The long campaign saw a significant increase in support of independence. But there can be no certainty that this will be repeated. The most difficult calculation for the First Minster may be assessing the likelihood of the campaign effect. Polls suggest opinion has hardened and the next referendum would be a form of trench warfare with little movement at considerable cost. But under the surface, there is evidence of substantial soft support both for and against independence. The conflicting evidence does not make a decision easy.

In 2014, supporters of independence were doubly blessed by an impressive Yes campaign and a divided and relatively hapless, if better resourced, opposition. Next time it may be very different. Supporters of independence may struggle to repeat the levels of public engagement and high turnout achieved two years ago. Their opponents may have learned lessons (though pro-EU campaigners appeared to have adopted many of the same crass Project Fear tactics adopted by Better Together despite evidence that support for the Union won despite these tactics). While some commentators view the prospect of Ruth Davidson leading the campaign for the union as a gift for the SNP, it would be wrong to underestimate her campaigning abilities. If it was battle for the office of First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon would likely win easily but a referendum is different. Ruth Davidson is weak when having to defend a position and would seek to avoid having to defend the union. Her strength lies in being on the offensive and she would have most of the Scottish media giving her uncritical support. Governing requires subtlety and nuance but campaigning is best done by crude, relentless focus.

The implications of Brexit for the debate are not straightforward. While the Scottish vote for Remain might feed the notion that Scotland is different, the result creates a new set of problems. As outlined just before the referendum, it would have been far easier for supporters of independence had the UK voted to remain in the EU and thus minimize the border problem.

Independence in Europe was an idea that acknowledged that economic integration could be combined with constitutional independence. The prospect of an independent Scotland would be looked upon more favourably today than two years ago across the EU member states but still raises the prospect of some serious negotiations on the Anglo-Scottish border. An independent Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK) would want a soft border but the EU would be a third party to such negotiations if Scotland remained a member of the EU. Supporters of independence must hope that a soft Brexit is the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Hard Brexit would be economically and socially damaging and might well incline many Scots to support continued membership of the UK simply for fear of a hard border with rUK. The real prospect exists that the case for the union would be won because many voters felt trapped inside an unpalatable shriveled UK but fearful that independence might leave Scotland facing a hard border with the rUK. There would be no winners in such a scenario.

A soft Brexit would create much more favourable conditions for supporters of independence. But Nicola Sturgeon will have little impact on this question. Many commentators have called on the First Minister to lead the case for a soft Brexit but ignore the political realities involved. The nature of Brexit is in the hands of Theresa May’s Government which is being pushed and pulled in different directions. Mrs May has little reason to listen to the SNP Government especially when it comes to creating conditions that would make independence easier to sell to the Scottish electorate. A hard Brexit might even appeal to Unionist fundamentalists who care more for the union than the welfare of its people. The harsh reality is that Scotland is largely shut out of the debate on the form Brexit takes just as it was outvoted on the principle of Brexit.

It is possible to conceive of a situation in which a soft border between Scotland and rUK exists (paralleling that promised by the UK Government between Northern Ireland and the Republic) while rUK maintains a hard border with the rest of the EU. But it would test the most experienced campaigners to translate this into a suitable sound bite for a referendum.

This adds to the problem of timing. It is unclear what form Brexit will take not least as the Prime Minister appears to have been captured for the moment by the hard Brexiteers but pressure is building from traditional bastions of Conservative pushing her towards a soft Brexit. This uncertainty does not help Nicola Sturgeon though it may be the only positive aspect of Mrs May’s current travails. The scenario in which any future independence referendum takes place and, more importantly, from which independence itself might emerge is far from clear. An early referendum that took place while London negotiated Brexit would reduce Whitehall’s ability to contribute to the Scottish referendum to the extent witnessed last time but would make it difficult for the First Minister to know the context in which independence would emerge. It is difficult to assess how this might play into a referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon’s decision on the timing of the independence referendum is likely to be the most important of her leadership. If she gets it right her place in Scottish history is assured but if she gets it wrong her time as First Minster would be over. It can be very lonely at the top.

James Mitchell is Co-Director of the Academy of Government. @ProfJMitchell

Rob Johns and James Mitchell, Takeover: explaining the extraordinary rise of the SNP was published in May. James Mitchell and Gerry Hassan co-edited, Scottish National Party Leaders, also published by Biteback this month.

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