Tom Peterkin: Brexit set to delay Scottish independence referendum

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With so much uncertainty surrounding the Brexit deal, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is having to be cautious about calling a second independence referendum, writes Tom Peterkin.

When Nicola Sturgeon was asked if she agreed with Professor Sir John Curtice’s forecast that she was unlikely to call Indyref2 in the next five years, her answer was both waspish and mildly amusing.

Many SNP supporters will be dismayed by what they will see as Nicola Sturgeon's timidity on the Indyref2 question  (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Many SNP supporters will be dismayed by what they will see as Nicola Sturgeon's timidity on the Indyref2 question (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

“Professor John Curtice is a very talented man who I have the greatest of respect for,” the First Minister said, “but to the best of my knowledge he doesn’t live inside my head. Although he may quibble with that, I don’t know.”

I’m no fortune teller myself, but I’m pretty sure that if the doyen of political soothsaying was asked if he had taken up residence in the First Ministerial cranium the answer would be no.

Nevertheless, Professor Curtice’s predictions are always worth taking heed of, based as they are on impeccable sources and an unrivalled political nous. Therefore there has been much interest in what the Strathclyde University psephologist had to say earlier this week.

He argued that the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and how to manage it would be the Scottish Government’s priority, a state of affairs that would kick a second independence referendum into the long grass.

Nicola Sturgeon may disappoint nationalists in favour of a swift independence referendum (Picture: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

Nicola Sturgeon may disappoint nationalists in favour of a swift independence referendum (Picture: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

Ms Sturgeon may have given a rather dismissive answer when asked about Professor Curtice’s remarks, but her own comments do little to discourage the notion that Indyref2 is being eased towards the back burner.

In fact, for readers of the runes, Ms Sturgeon has dropped plenty of heavy hints that her plans for Indyref2 are to be delayed because of Brexit’s uncertain state.

The most recent was when she spoke to journalists after meeting with Theresa May at Edinburgh University. It was there that she took her perfunctory approach to the question about Professor Curtice. But her other remarks were telling.

Having promised to update the nation on her Indyref2 plans in October, she indicated that there was likely to be a delay to that particular timetable.

The reason was that her original plan was to make a decision on whether to pursue the referendum option when the terms of the Brexit deal were clearer.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon unsure about IndyRef2 plan after Theresa May meeting

With that deadline fast-approaching, there is little sign of the fog clearing and Ms Sturgeon admitted she didn’t know what she would say about a second referendum in October. “Presumably when we get to October, I’ll give an update. What the content of that update is, by definition, I don’t know right now,” she said.

In fairness to the First Minister, she has always made it clear that her October pronouncement on Indyref2 was contingent on having an idea of what shape any Brexit deal will take.

Ms Sturgeon clearly now feels that come October there will not have been enough clearing up of the confusion over the UK’s departure from the EU.

And at this rate, her pledge to come up with a “precise timetable” for a second referendum is falling rapidly by the wayside.

Ms Sturgeon claimed she had received very little in the way of reassurance from Mrs May that the terms of the Brexit deal would be any clearer in two months’ time.

Those comments chimed with her message to the grassroots at the SNP conference in June when she appealed for patience and urged them to stop obsession about the “when” of independence and concentrate on the “why”.

Clearly the First Minister is trying to manage the expectations of her followers, large numbers of whom will be dismayed at what they will see as timidity on the independence question.

Then, of course, there is the other side of the constitutional equation – those for whom the thought of another referendum holds little appeal. Bitter experience tells Ms Sturgeon that her decision to tie another push for an independence referendum to the Brexit vote cost her half a million votes in last year’s snap election. No wonder the First Minister appears to be taking a cautious approach this time around.

READ MORE: Editor responsible for ‘The Vow’ now backs Scottish independence

And then there is the question of whether Mrs May would even countenance a section 30 order – the mechanism by which Westminster transfers the power to hold a referendum to Holyrood.

When asked about this after her meeting with Ms Sturgeon, the Prime Minister’s reply was characteristically Maybotic. Having accused the Scottish Government of “sowing the seeds of division” on Brexit, the well-rehearsed phraseology made yet another appearance.

“The Scottish people voted in 2014,” Mrs May said. “They had a referendum. They gave a clear decision. They wanted Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom ...”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Professor Curtice had a far more helpful insight into the challenges faced by Ms Sturgeon from a UK Government standpoint.

He argued there was “no way” the Scottish Government could secure a section 30 order, because Mrs May’s administration is being propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party – the most passionate Unionists of them all.

Furthermore, there still does not appear to be a surge in support for Scottish independence.

Ms Sturgeon must have little appetite to agitate for a referendum that she has no guarantee of winning.

Given that Ms Sturgeon herself doesn’t yet know what she is going to say, it doesn’t look as if much light is going to be shed on Indyref2 plans in October unless things change dramatically Brexitwise.