Referendum rethink after SNP suffers major losses

Scotland's First Minister, and leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon, speaks during a press conference at Bute House in Edinburgh. Picture; Getty
Scotland's First Minister, and leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon, speaks during a press conference at Bute House in Edinburgh. Picture; Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon has signalled she will rethink plans for a second independence referendum after the sweeping losses suffered by the SNP in the general election.

Opponents accused the First Minister of a “political miscalculation” in calling a second vote on the constitution after her party lost 21 seats in Thursday’s vote.

At a press conference in her official Bute House residence yesterday, Ms Sturgeon said that the independence issue had been a factor in the losses.

The Scottish Parliament has since voted in favour of the SNP government’s demands for another referendum, although the constitution is reserved to Westminster.

Asked whether the result means there will not be a second referendum, Ms Sturgeon said: “I’m going to reflect carefully on the result. I’m going to take some time to do that. Like all politicians I’ve now gone 36 hours or more without sleep.

“I don’t think these are the conditions to rush to judgements or decisions.

“I will consider carefully the outcome, listen to what voters were saying.

“Undoubtedly the issue of an independence referendum was a factor in this election result, but I think there were other factors in this election result as well.

“I will reflect on that and come to considered judgements.”

The First Minister pledged to say more about the prospect of a second referendum “in the days to come”.

Former SNP leader Alex Salmond and the party’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson were among the high profile casualties on a night which saw the party take 35 – over half – of Scotland’s 59 seats. But this was 21 down on the 56 Nationalist MPs who were returned in the last election two years ago. The party was also down from 50 per cent of the popular vote to 37 per cent.

Ms Sturgeon said that Brexit and independence were both issues in the election, as well as “a surge towards Jeremy Corbyn” in the final days of the campaign and tactical voting in Scotland.

It was put to Ms Sturgeon that Scots voted “by a majority for parties which support the union “suggesting that she should ditch her referendum plans for the duration of the current Scottish Parliament until 2021. Ms Sturgeon said this “ may well be an interpretation with some degree of force behind it.”

But she added: “I strongly suspect there were independence supporters among those who voted for Jeremy Corbyn.” Asked if her decision to call a second referendum was a tactical error in light of the losses, Ms Sturgeon added: “I accept that independence and an independence referendum was a factor in yesterday’s election. I think that would have been the case had I taken a different decision a few weeks ago. You cannot escape the presence of the constitutional question in Scottish politics even if we wanted to.”

The SNP stepped up calls for a second referendum in the aftermath of the Brexit vote last June which saw a majority of Scots vote in favour of Remain, while the weight of votes south of the Border swung the result in favour of Leave.

The Prime Minister dramatically blocked the prospect of another vote while the Brexit process is ongoing, insisting: “Now is not the time.”

Ms Sturgeon had called for the referendum to be held by spring 2019, but appeared to relent on this during the election campaign

Deputy First Minister John Swinney also accepted that the loss of seats had been partly down to the constitutional issue.

He said: “We will take time and care to reflect on the outcome of this result, but we have to acknowledge that the question of a second independence referendum was a significant motivator of votes against the SNP in this election and we have to be attentive to that point.”

And a former senior advisor to Ms Sturgeon, Campbell Gunn, yesterday said that the prospect of second vote on the constitution could be shelved.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if indyref2 is parked for the timebeing,” he said.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has called on Ms Sturgeon to take a second independence referendum “off the table”, branding the demand “a massive political miscalculation”. Speaking in Edinburgh yesterday, Ms Davidson: “This was an election that was dominated by one issue: Nicola Sturgeon’s decision in March to demand a second referendum on independence. We led the opposition to that referendum.

“The Scottish people spoke. The SNP’s vote down 13 per cent. Nearly half a million votes gone between 2015 and today. Our vote up 13 per cent. The largest share of the vote for the Scottish Conservatives since 1979.

“SNP MPs who lost their seats have paid the price or what was a massive political miscalculation on Nicola Sturgeon’s part.”

The Tory leader added that Ms Sturgeon’s pledge to “reflect” on the prospect a second referendum being staged does not go far enough.

Ms Davidson added: “Let me be clear: nobody, not me, not anyone, is expecting the SNP to give up on independence.

“That is what it believes in and it is a perfectly honourable position to take.

“What people do expect is that, right now, the SNP gives Scotland a break. Simply put, Scotland has had its fill.

“We need to focus on the challenges we face on education, on NHS funding, on the new tax and welfare powers – as well as the huge challenge of Brexit.

“Nobody will condemn the First Minister if she now decides to re-set her course. This is her opportunity to do so – and I urge her to take it immediately.

“She must take it off the table. And if the First Minister really does want to act on behalf of all people in Scotland – she needs to make this clear in short order.”