IS indyref2 on hold – kicked into the long grass by a First Minister keener on staying in power at Holyrood than pursuing the goal she’s worked towards all her adult life?
The question arises because of a comment after her meeting with the Prime Minister when the SNP leader appeared to announce a delay on deciding whether to call a second indyref sometime this autumn.
Nicola Sturgeon told the press that mounting uncertainty over Brexit left her with a “huge amount of scepticism” that the UK Government would produce enough detail on Brexit and future relations with the EU by then. After previously promising a “precise timetable” on another independence vote, she said: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ll see where we get to in October.”
So should Yessers be alarmed at what Union-supporting papers quickly portrayed as an indyref2 U-turn?
Well it’s true the FM’s language has changed. But is it a surprise that a “timetable” has become an “update”, given that Britain may be heading for a hard Brexit, a second EU referendum or even another snap General Election by October? With so many political tectonic plates shifting, it’s certainly hard to predict the best moment to launch indyref2. Equally, the FM’s “changed language” could simply be that – a slightly different set of words chosen to describe the same objective, fluffed up to appear more significant than it is by Union-supporting newspapers.
The media could easily have chosen to dwell on the First Minister’s warning that a dysfunctional Brexit simply “cannot be allowed” — a firmer anti-Brexit stance than any uttered to date. Journalists could also have laughed like drains at Theresa May’s barking assertion that she has “set out a clear proposal in the Chequers plan that delivers on the Brexit vote while protecting jobs and livelihoods in the UK”. Maybe hacks are simply numbed by the frequency of easily rebutted delusional statements about reaching an internal Tory party deal that’s got a cat’s chance in hell of being accepted by the EU.
But having said all this, it’s also true that Nicola has been gey(considerably) quiet for a woman about to embark on the political adventure of a lifetime within the next 12 months.
Clearly the memory of nailing her colours to the mast in advance of the unforeseen 2017 snap election still rankles. In it the SNP lost half a million votes and a third of its Westminster seats. But what lesson should really be drawn from that?
Was the mistake to mention independence, to mention it too far from incontrovertible evidence of Brexit-related damage or to mention it but then campaign about something else?
Methinks worry about levels of popular support for independence by the party set up to deliver that constitutional goal, quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the electorate senses the keenest advocates aren’t making a bold, confident case, it hardly bolsters confidence amongst the waverers.
At the risk of sounding like some imperial twerp, this situation reminds me of an ill-advised adventure 10 years ago, while white water rafting down the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. The raft flipped at the first rapid and all six petrified occupants travelled underwater through a wall of turbulent water and white foam. Unable to breathe because the life jackets were so tight I was convinced the end had come, till a lifeguard canoeist wheeched me and the others back on to the raft. Panting to recover like a set of drowned rats the last thing any of us wanted to do was go anywhere near the water again. But we were in a canyon – committed to going down the river through 20 more rapids till we could get out. Staying on the raft through each one of those rapids meant leaning out over that swirling, threatening watery mass and paddling like fury when the oarsman told us because that way we might hit the sweet spot and be delivered past rocks, mini waterfalls and general turbulence intact. It was strongly counter-intuitive, but we simply had to do it. Once committed, there was no option but to put maximum effort into travelling with power and precision through the swirls and eddies of a powerful and even deadly current.
Politics is no different. Once the journey has started it needs whole-hearted focus, communication and leadership to negotiate the safest route through choppy waters. There’s no point feeling half-hearted halfway – that conjures up the very situation that’s most feared.
This time, once independence is back “on the table”, there can be no about-turns, and no second thoughts without jeopardising the cause completely.
When we go, we must go completely and without hesitation. It’s a moment that must be chosen carefully and will be worth waiting for – certainly. The question is whether the FM will wait too long.
Thanks to the wider Yes movement, that’s getting more and more difficult. According to Nicola Sturgeon: “The Prime Minister is planning … a detailed statement on the future relationship [with the EU] in October.” Since October begins with the Tory party conference in Birmingham, you’d imagine Theresa May will try to have something new to say in the hope of avoiding a very public fight with her party’s Brexiteers. Days later the SNP conference puts Nicola Sturgeon in the same sort of bind – especially because the final and largest All Under One Banner march takes place in Edinburgh the day before. If the tally on October 6 reflects the growing determination of Yessers to channel support for independence through massive, peaceful summer marches, the Edinburgh event will be a whopper and an unmistakeable reminder that Scottish independence belongs to a far wider range of people than just the SNP. There’s still a great deal of respect for Nicola Sturgeon and an understanding that timing the second vote is key. But if Scotland is dragged out of the EU next March, it’s hard to see how this would not constitute the most mighty “material change in circumstance” since the first indyref in 2014. Of course the polls haven’t changed substantially, though, as Green leader Patrick Harvie observed recently, that’s a remarkable achievement given the lack of formal campaigning since 2014.
Before the snap election in 2017, there was much talk by the SNP of the triple lock. The party’s manifesto said the SNP’s win in Holyrood elections, another Scottish Parliament vote and a majority victory in Scotland in the Westminster elections would “complete a triple lock, further reinforcing the democratic mandate which already exists” for a second referendum. The General Election vote was down but the triple lock was completed.
Of course there will be problems moving towards a second vote – but the SNP must make a move before the next Holyrood elections. Not because the pro-independence majority might be lost afterwards but because the best time to construct and deliver an alternative destination for Scotland will probably be past. To be honest, if the Scottish electorate has grown weary of pro-independence parties by 2021, prevarication and their lukewarm approach to seizing the moment will be partly to blame.
The polling expert John Curtice says there’s “no way” the Scottish Government will get a Section 30 agreement for Westminster because the DUP will veto the request. That’s possibly true. He also thinks: “If Nicola Sturgeon’s principal objective is to remain First Minister it is not clear why she would take the risk of holding a referendum that is at serious risk of being lost.” That’s possibly true too.
But I’m betting self-preservation isn’t the First Minister’s principal objective. I’m also betting that where there’s confidence, momentum and a whole-hearted campaign, there’s the greatest chance of finding a chink in the brick wall of Westminster intransigence. It’s coming soon for a’ that.