Scottish independence: Only the gullible expect IndyRef2 in 2023 – Murdo Fraser MSP

Sometimes trying to please voters can be hard. Other times it is an effortless joy. Last week I spent time reassuring anxious local businesses that there was zero prospect of a legal independence referendum taking place in 2023, as promised by Nicola Sturgeon.

Their concerns were fuelled by reports from gullible London media outlets, who took at face value the First Minister’s attempted relaunch of her independence campaign, with Indyref2 within 18 months.

More seasoned observers of the Scottish politics saw it for what it was. The political equivalent of painting windows on a half-built ferry.

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It’s a hardy annual. Every year Ms Sturgeon declares Indyref2 to be just over the brow of the next hill. Nationalists climb in hope, only to reach their own valley of despair.

The latest ruse from the SNP is to claim, with square jaws and flying spittle, that they have a “mandate” for a second referendum, based on the result of the Holyrood election last year, when pro-independence parties won the majority of seats.

This conveniently ignores the fact that during the campaign Ms Sturgeon herself said in a TV debate, in response to the BBC’s Glenn Campbell, that even those who do not want a second independence referendum should still vote for her. Her claim is undermined from her own mouth.

The mandate argument is bogus. The Scottish Parliament has no power to legislate for a referendum. We voted for the constitution to be reserved to Westminster. That is why, in advance of the 2014 referendum, the then First Minister Alex Salmond sought – and received – agreement from the then UK Government that there should be a Section 30 agreement.

The notion that a mandate can be won for a policy that is not under the control of the body elected is simply absurd. It is as absurd as a party standing for election to, say, Midlothian Council, pledging a five per cent cut in income tax and then, on winning the majority of seats, claiming a mandate to cut it. It is simply not in their gift.

Catalonia's independence referendum in 2017 was banned by Madrid and boycotted by those in favour of remaining in Spain (Picture: Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images)

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It is a shame that the self-styled defenders of democracy in the SNP claim a mandate, but don’t see themselves as mandated by voters to fulfil their promises to them. Thus Ms Sturgeon doesn’t feel mandated to close the attainment gap in education as she promised. She asked us to judge her by that promise. She has now dropped it.

They don’t feel mandated to scrap the council tax which they promised way back in 2007. Or to set up a publicly owned energy company. I could go on.

SNP strategy is not ‘Scotland the Brave’ – it is hoping for ‘Scotland the distinctly miffed’.

Their hope is that if the UK Government stick to their line that now is not the time for another referendum, this will somehow shift public opinion towards independence.

It is based upon the rather bizarre premise that people who do not support independence and very clearly do not want another referendum, are suddenly going to change their minds because the UK Government is doing precisely what they want it to do.

I remember well, back in 2016, being in discussions with UK Government colleagues on what the appropriate response should be to Sturgeon’s calls for Indyref2 after the Brexit referendum.

A great deal of voter research went into deciding that the then Prime Minister Theresa May should say: “Now is not the time.”

Instead of driving up support for independence as the SNP hoped, it struck a chord with the Scottish people. In the subsequent 2017 general election, the SNP lost 21 of their seats, mostly to the Scottish Conservatives.

There is no sign of any significant shift in Scottish opinion since then that’s likely to lead to a different response this time.

Opinion polls consistently show support for independence outweighed by that for the Union. Barely one in three of the electorate want another vote any time soon.

With no realistic prospect of another legal vote, the latest cunning ripsnorter from the SNP is to propose their own consultative, non-legally binding referendum. Even if that got past the courts (and there is substantial opinion suggesting that it would be struck down), it is hard to see precisely what the point would be. It would be no more than a glorified, taxpayer-funded opinion poll.

It would almost certainly be boycotted by the pro-Union parties, and campaign groups such as Scotland in Union. With all these refusing to take part in TV debates, the broadcasters would be unable to provide significant coverage of such a referendum, denying it the oxygen of publicity.

Local councils across Scotland with pro-Union majorities of councillors – the majority – could, borrowing the SNP’s logic, claim a mandate not to participate in such a vote, leaving the SNP at Holyrood to take legal action to try and force them.

It would all be an absolute shambles the like of which we haven’t seen since the SNP tried to run a census.

The best outcome that the SNP could hope for would be a Catalonia-style result – a Yes vote on a risible turnout.

The reality the SNP must face is there is no public appetite for another referendum any time soon. Voters want the Scottish Government to get on with the day job – what they were mandated to do – addressing the crisis in the NHS, in Scottish education, in our economy, and improving infrastructure.

There is little public sympathy for a First Minister trying to pursue a political project to appease her woad-daubed supporters when the majority of us don’t want it.

We will hear over the coming months the full cry of the SNP’s ersatz outrage.

But only the gullible expect a referendum to take place in 2023, or for that matter any time in the foreseeable future.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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