Nicola Sturgeon's announcement of a bill and consultation to pave the way for a second Scottish independence referendum may be a way of keeping activists happy while waiting to see how things unfold, says Paul Cairney.
Nicola Sturgeon has announced a consultation on a new Bill on Scottish Independence. Clearly, it made the audience at the SNP’s conference very happy, but what should the rest of us make of it? My gut tells me there will be a second referendum but I wouldn’t yet bet my house on it, because that decision is wrapped up in three unresolved issues.
First, there won’t be a referendum unless the SNP thinks it will win, but the polls won’t tell us the answer before Sturgeon has to ask the question! It sounds simple to hold back a referendum until enough people tell you they’ll vote Yes. The complication is that many people don’t know what their choice will be until they can make sense of recent events. ‘Brexit’ might be a ‘game changer’ in a year or two, but it isn’t right now, and Sturgeon might have to choose to pursue a referendum before those polls change in her favour.
Second, the polls don’t tell us much because it is too soon to know what Brexit will look like. The idea of Brexit is still too abstract and not yet related to the arguments that might win the day for a Yes vote.
In each case, I don’t think we can expect to see the full effect of such arguments because (a) they don’t yet form part of a coherent argument linked directly to Brexit, because (b) we still don’t yet know what Brexit looks like. If you don’t really know what something is, how it relates to your life, and who you should blame for that outcome, how can you express a view on its effect on your political preferences?
Third, it is therefore too soon to know how different the second Scottish independence referendum would be. The SNP would like it to relate to the constitutional crisis caused by Brexit, basing its case on a combination of simple statements: England is pulling Scotland out of the EU against our will; the Tories caused this problem; we want to clear up the mess that they caused; it’s a bit rich for the Tories to warn us about the disastrous economic consequences of Scottish independence after the havoc they just caused; and, we want to be a cosmopolitan Scotland, not little England.
Instead, what if people see the Leave vote as a cautionary tale? It is not easy to argue that our response to the catastrophic effect of a withdrawal from a major political, economic, and social union should be to withdraw from another major political, economic, and social union. This is particularly true now that Brexit has opened up the possibility of more devolution (a possibility that had been closed off before now). A feasible alternative is to push for more autonomy in the areas that are devolved and ‘Europeanised’ – including agriculture, fishing, and environmental policies – as a way to have the UK deal with the Scottish Government as ‘as equals on a range of areas’.
So, I’d describe Sturgeon’s announcement as a short term win: why not give your most active audience something to cheer about while you wait for events to unfold? Predicting the timing of a referendum is more difficult because it relates more to a concept than a date: it will be the point at which (a) we know enough about the meaning of Brexit to judge its likely impact, and (b) we have to decide before it feels too late (in other words, in time to respond to the timetable of the UK’s exit from the EU).
Some people are worrying that the UK Government might scupper the SNP’s chances directly, by withholding consent for a second referendum. Maybe it would be better to be tricksy indirectly, by remaining vague about the impact of Brexit and having people in Scotland worry about making a choice before they know its effect.