Lesley Riddoch: Playing a waiting game on IndyRef2 is dangerous for SNP

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Playing a waiting game on Indyref2 is dangerous for the SNP – but so too are its other options, writes Lesley Riddoch

Will the SNP and the cause of independence sit on the sidelines of politics in 2019? With all the uncertainty and complexity of Brexit plus the constant focus on Westminster, the Scottish dimension might look inevitably marginalised this year, as it was for most of last.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after making her keynote speech on day three of the SNP autumn conference at the SEC, Glasgow.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after making her keynote speech on day three of the SNP autumn conference at the SEC, Glasgow.

Nicola Sturgeon’s support for a People’s Vote has seemingly relegated a second Indyref – even though a second crack at Brexit sets a useful precedent for another independence vote. And the SNP leader shows no sign of overcoming a chronic fear of making more than occasional independence mentions lest she rouses the deeply compromised Scottish Tories.

READ MORE: Brexit defeat in Commons could lead to second referendum on EU

Many of the First Minister’s advisers have been counselling caution for so long, it’s become habit-forming, with some justification. Labour and the Tories are tearing themselves apart so there’s a lot to be said for staying stumm and letting the wheels come off their political carts.

But waiting is dangerous too because the case for becoming an independent country isn’t being made. However else 2019 pans out, it will be a year of decision between different possible futures – independence can’t afford to be the only option off the table.

The first scenario that could involve the SNP is a government of national unity – though maybe an emergency executive will be nearer the mark. This could be triggered if Theresa May’s ropey deal is finally voted down and Labour wins a vote of no confidence with the backing of Tory rebels. It still takes a two-thirds majority to overcome the Fixed Term Parliament Act and force a general election. But another government could be formed by People’s Vote-supporting MPs presenting a viable alternative to the Queen within 14 days. This cross-party contingent would include people like Dominic Grieve, Justine Greening, Hilary Benn, Chris Bryant, Stephen Doughty, the Lib Dems, Plaid and the Green MP Caroline Lucas – though leadership might be an issue. The purpose of the temporary government would be to seek a six-month extension of Article 50 from the EU so a People’s Vote can be arranged, organise it and in the event of a Remain majority, revoke Article 50 and hold a general election.

Evidently it’s a high risk strategy and there are obvious dangers for the SNP getting into bed with parts of two, big, divided and crumbling unionist parties. On the other hand, it might seem very odd for the SNP to stand outside any bold collective effort to clinch a People’s Vote when its leader has advocated joint working in pursuit of precisely that goal and its own elected members have helped win the European Court of Justice ruling that allows Article 50 to be unilaterally revoked. It’s possible the SNP could have ministers in such a unity government, including perhaps the massively significant post of Scottish Secretary, and the promise of a Section 30 order if Brexit goes ahead.

The second scenario likely to demand action from the SNP leader is the possible return to active politics of Alex Salmond, who is bringing a legal case over allegations of sexual harassment in a four-day action starting on January 15. The SNP has never had a strategy for deploying senior statespeople – Salmond and indeed Angus Robertson could have been given roving international emissary briefs but they haven’t and since the SNP (rightly) doesn’t take seats in the House of Lords there’s no other real outlet for their energies other than returning to the fray.

After all, upsetting the applecart is what Salmond does best and if he is back in the frame and Brexit does thunder on, via May’s deal or a no-deal exit, will SNP MPs just keep on keeping on? Or do something to register the democratic meltdown taking place from Scotland’s point of view?

Some have already suggested SNP MPs should return en masse to Edinburgh. Of course Irish abstentionism was preceded by a manifesto that made the “no-show” policy clear to the public, before they voted. The SNP might worry that the sudden adoption of a profoundly disruptive strategy might not seem democratically justifiable. Yet sitting twiddling thumbs while Westminster dismantles the devolution settlement would also be dangerous.

One option might be for SNP MPs to come back to Edinburgh to sit with MSPs in a kind of Scottish convention for one or two days a week. They could discuss the reserved issues of trade, Europe, defence, energy, international relations and macroeconomic policy currently beyond Scotland’s legislative reach, putting the flesh of policy detail on the bones of a currently abstract independence argument.

Something has to happen. Sturgeon has been talking more about independence and there are rumours of an imminent announcement. If May or the Brexit minister makes a statement as expected today or tomorrow further postponing the meaningful vote, will the Scottish Government really do nothing but complain? Likewise in the wake of the meaningful vote itself – if it ever happens. Will disappointment be enough?

When Chris Evans was asked if he’d picked the right time to leave Radio 2, he quoted his predecessor Terry Wogan: “The question isn’t whether it’s the right time to go but whether it’s the right time to stay.” Once the political landscape of Brexiting Britain has become thoroughly toxic, will 2019 look like the right time for Remain voting Scotland to stay within the UK?

Meanwhile, there’s work to do right now.

Last week Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, tweeted: “When you see how hard it is to leave the EU, just imagine the upheaval of leaving the UK; a 300-year-old union compared to a 45-year one; and one which is significantly more entwined.”

That’s a perfectly reasonable anxiety, which has some equally reasonable answers, including international precedent, international law, the expectation of fairly straightforward EEA or EU membership for Scotland, the likelihood that agreements including the Irish Republic could easily be extended to Scotland.

Above all, there’s the inconvenient truth demonstrated by Brexit and Scotland’s current captured position that no constitutional scenario is now without risk.

All of this needs to be brought into the open this year – if not by the SNP then by the Scottish Greens or Scottish Independence Convention. One thing looks certain in 2019: if you start in the margins, you’re in danger of ending it nowhere.