Lesley Riddoch: Things are hotting up on Indy front

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Are we heading for the declaration of a second independence strategy or a fresh campaign before the SNP’s April conference?

The received wisdom is that Nicola Sturgeon’s hyper-caution combined with the static nature of opinion polls, continuing uncertainty over Brexit and the near inevitability of another Section 30 rebuff all make a second independence campaign impossible in the short term.

Momentum is building and those opposing Scotland's right to self-determination know it, writes Lesley Riddoch

Momentum is building and those opposing Scotland's right to self-determination know it, writes Lesley Riddoch

But some straws in the wind suggest otherwise.

The Scottish Government’s announcement about a separate Scottish currency, effectively rejecting the controversial Growth Commission recommendation, does look like a gearing up – and not just to avoid difficult questions at conference. So does Nicola Sturgeon’s comment about the possibility of forming a coalition government with Labour if another snap election’s called at Westminster. Asked if she might form a Labour-SNP coalition, Nicola Sturgeon said last week she was “ready to work with other parties” to oppose the Conservatives’ disastrous Brexit plans.

The Conservatives also seem to be upping the ante. Last week an anonymous government minister warned “there’ll be no escaping the Brexit disaster for Scots”. He or she was apparently just one among “a number of senior figures” briefing the BBC against the prospect of another indyref. Methinks they doth protest too much. Meanwhile there are suggestions that the Scottish Tories have urged the Prime Minister to “keep hold of all the cards” in the event of a second referendum so that London decides the date, question and franchise – a clear acknowledgment that allowing under-18s and non-European citizens to vote again would be enough to return a small Yes vote right now.

In 2014 most EU nationals voted No, after scare stories that an iScotland would be forced to quit the EU. But since the Brexit vote and the UK government’s failure to guarantee rights to folk who’ve made their entire lives in Britain, almost every EU national still here will back independence second time around. They won’t be fooled again.

Similarly, 100,000 16- and 17-year-olds voted in 2014 and around 71 per cent backed independence, according to a poll carried out by Tory donor Lord Ashcroft. Since the next indyref will also determine access to jobs in Europe, the result’s likely to be an even stronger Yes vote among young Scots next time.

Last week’s ridiculous claim by David Mundell suggests he also knows how Brexit may soon change the political landscape north of the Border.

The Scots Secretary said Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP actually want a no-deal Brexit to “pursue their fantasy of independence”. Mr Mundell insisted: “They pretend to oppose no deal, yet no deal is their real aim. They hope it will cause chaos, confusion and boost support for independence. Everything else that they do or say on Brexit has been a publicity stunt.”

Now a man who shares party membership with Chris ‘no resignation’ Grayling, Boris ‘zipwire’ Johnson and Jacob ‘backstop-ultimatum’ Rees Mogg has clearly had practice in recognising the hallmarks of the cynical gesture and the empty stunt. But suggesting Nicola Sturgeon wants a no deal Brexit – are you having a laugh?

Since Mr Mundell has clearly been on another planet for the last two years, he’s missed the fact that Sturgeon’s been getting pelters from Yessers for appearing more interested in saving Britain than readying Scotland for indyref2.

Chaos might well look like “the best backdrop for another campaign for independence” to politicians who are quite prepared to break up Britain and wreck livelihoods over hysterical fears about foreign workers and dogmatic beliefs about the benefits of unregulated free trade, but there’s been no occasion over the last two years when the First Minister has forgotten the entirely negative long-term impact of Brexit on Scotland, realising that different cross-border trade arrangements aren’t ideal birthing conditions for any new state.

You can only conclude that the sudden eruption of rattling by Tories north and south of the Border means Whitehall expects the SNP leader to call for another Section 30 order sooner rather than later.

And why might that be – because any kind of Brexit, hard or soft, on 29 March or a few months later, opens up a whole new set of scenarios for Scotland.

Once Britain has actually withdrawn from the EU, it’s likely that the EU and the smaller trade body EFTA will approach Scotland offering rival membership deals in the event of a vote for independence second time around.

Senior officials in Iceland are openly discussing the many advantages of having Scotland as a new member of the EFTA halfway house and thereby creating a powerful bloc with three contiguous North Atlantic states controlling vital sea routes, fishing grounds, oil and gas fields and a vast wind, marine and geothermal renewable energy resource.

If Gavin McCrone was writing another memerandum to ministers today about the strategic and economic potential of such a move, he might again conclude an independent Scotland “would tend to be in chronic surplus to a quite embarrassing degree”, even if the big income from decades of oil and gas predicted 45 years ago has largely been squandered by successive UK governments.

Meanwhile, academics at the recent Oxford conference on Rewriting the UK Constitution have predicted that the EU will make a public offer to Scotland once Brexit means there’s no further risk in offending Britain and no conflict of interest in wooing the Scots instead. And why wouldn’t the EU want us? Regaining five million generally progressive, pro-EU citizens in the wake of Britain’s acrimonious departure would be an important boost to the European project.

Any bidding war between EFTA and the EU would serve to bolster the viability of Scottish independence, consolidate a new Brexit-oriented strategy and increase support for another Scottish vote.

Of course who knows what will happen next with Brexit?

Theresa May’s deal may get the go-ahead, but her new assurances on the Irish backstop may not satisfy Brexiteers. An extension to Article 50, allowing time for a second Brexit vote, might let the SNP trade support for an understanding on a future Section 30 order. In short, things are hotting up on the independence front even though the issue and the SNP have been virtually cut out of mainstream political debate.

Momentum is building and those opposing Scotland’s right to self-determination in the light of Brexit know it.