This week could see the button pressed for the biggest political upheaval in 50 years: the activation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, launching the UK’s departure from the European Union. It could also trigger a second Scottish independence referendum campaign. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly argued that Brexit constitutes a material change in the UK and that while Leave won by 52 per cent to 48 per cent across the UK with more than 30 million people voting, Scotland voted strongly in favour of Remain.
Prime Minister Theresa May is now under pressure from the SNP to allow a second Scottish independence referendum. And Ms Sturgeon is determined that this should be held before the Brexit process is complete, thus enabling the SNP to seek a continuation of EU membership on independence rather than having to face the complex process of seeking admission as an external country.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said another referendum on Scottish independence would be “absolutely fine” – but Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has said her party would oppose any attempt to hold a referendum. The party’s justice spokeswoman, Jackie Baillie, has described Mr Corbyn’s comments as “misguided and irresponsible”. Meanwhile, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has said he would vote to block holding another independence referendum, as another poll would be “divisive”.
Mrs May would be best advised not to rule out a second independence referendum at this stage, as this would almost certainly inflame independence supporters. Best, surely, to keep her options open for now, neither ruling a second referendum in or out.
It is understandable that Ms Sturgeon should wish early clarification. But for Mrs May to signal that she would allow one now would almost certainly kick-start the battle, even though Ms Sturgeon has said she does not want one till 2018.
Many in Scotland would instinctively recoil at the prospect of what would effectively be another bruising, bitter and prolonged referendum battle – and likely to rage for more than two years. Other government issues in Scotland would rank below this in terms of ministerial time and commitment – and this when domestic problems are mounting, education and the economy chief among them.
The immediate prospect is that with complex Brexit negotiations about to begin in earnest, a referendum battle at home would oblige both Holyrood and Westminster to have to fight on two fronts – hardly the recipe for an informed second independence campaign. And many in Scotland would argue that if a second independence referendum is to be held at all, it is surely best held when voters have a clearer idea of the detailed Brexit terms and conditions.
With little sign of widespread popular support for a second referendum, continued SNP insistence on a 2018 poll commitment at this stage could backfire badly. It would be politic for both sides to allow passions to cool while keeping a close eye on Scottish public mood.