Tom Peterkin: SNP faces big question - what now for Nicola?

Nicola Sturgeon debates a motion to seek the authority to hold an indpendence referendum. Picture: AFP/Andy Buchanan/Getty Images
Nicola Sturgeon debates a motion to seek the authority to hold an indpendence referendum. Picture: AFP/Andy Buchanan/Getty Images
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Faced with a Westminster brick wall, Nicola Sturgeon has to think again says Tom Peterkin

When Nicola Sturgeon re-opened the two-day Holyrood debate on a second referendum, she struck a defiant note in the knowledge that her plans would be given the bum’s rush.

There was no need for a crystal ball to predict how the UK government would react to her proposal to seek another independence vote. Sure enough, it was only a matter of moments after a majority of MSPs had backed her plans that Scottish Secretary David Mundell suggested they would be blocked for an indeterminate period.

Anticipating the UK government’s implacable resistance to indyref2, Ms Sturgeon said she would outline her “next steps” in the battle for Scotland’s future.

Those steps, the First Minister said, would become clear when she sets them out next month when the Scottish Parliament returns after the Easter recess.

If a crystal ball was not required to see the UK government stick rigidly to its “now is not the time” line, one would come in handy right now for those wanting to know what moves Ms Sturgeon is contemplating.

The UK government’s repeated refusal to countenance a referendum until well after the Brexit process is complete means the ball (crystal or otherwise) is now firmly in the First Minister’s court.

With referendum-holding powers reserved to Westminster, it seems as if Ms Sturgeon has reached a dead end in her quest to take Scotland to the polls again.

There are, however, a number of options open to the First Minister beyond banging on about “democratic outrages” and complaints of Westminster blocking the will of the Scottish Parliament (rest assured, there will be plenty of that).

Among the possibilities being mulled over around Holyrood is the prospect of Ms Sturgeon trying to escape from her cul de sac by calling a snap Scottish election.

An election would be an effective test of how strongly the electorate supports her proposal for another referendum.

If the result went the right way for Ms Sturgeon, it would make the UK government sit up and take notice.

Calling an unscheduled election, however, is full of risk.

The last Scottish election saw the SNP lose its outright majority. The parliamentary arithmetic in favour of going for independence is pretty fragile – relying as it does on the support of six Green MSPs.

In an increasingly polarised country where pro-Union voters are being hoovered up by the Tories, losing a pro-independence majority would be disastrous for the SNP’s independence dream.

Another gambit could be for the SNP’s 54 MPs to resign from Westminster.

The historical precedent for this kind of mass resignation can be found in another relatively recent constitutional battle.

In 1985, 15 unionist MPs of the Ulster Unionists, Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Populist Unionist Party resigned in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The subsequent by-elections early the following year saw just one unionist candidate stand in each seat in an attempt to garner as much of the unionist vote as possible. Fourteen unionists were returned with hefty majorities, but the moderate nationalist SDLP managed to take one seat.

As the Northern Irish experience suggests, it is tactic that is not without risk.

An intriguing suggestion has been that the SNP could resurrect an old policy in an attempt to inject some momentum into the current impasse. It was not until 2000 that independence via a referendum vote became SNP orthodoxy.

Before that the SNP campaigned on the basis that a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster or a Holyrood majority would deliver a mandate for independence.

Alex Salmond introduced the referendum policy because he realised that the idea that voting SNP could lead directly to the break up of the UK was scaring off voters. Reverting to the old policy would turn the 2020 general election and 2021 Scottish election into a straight fight for independence.

The option that has received the most publicity has been the possibility of the Scottish Parliament calling a vote without the agreement of Westminster. The idea that this might be a goer was given oxygen at the recent SNP conference in Aberdeen. When asked if an unauthorised poll was on the agenda, senior SNP figure after senior figure declined to rule it out.

There would, of course, be difficulties. Undoubtedly, it would be challenged in court. Those of a unionist persuasion would boycott it or refuse to recognise it. Time and again the SNP has said its preference is for a referendum agreed by the Scottish and UK governments. So while it may be a tempting road to go down, doing so would be messy. A less radical approach would be for Ms Sturgeon to persist with getting Holyrood to pass a section 30 order – the legislation required to transfer referendum holding power from Westminster to Edinburgh – even though she knows the House of Commons will not reciprocate.

Another purely symbolic gesture would be to vow to carry on with the Holyrood legislation for a second referendum in an attempt to rally the troops. But with large sections of Scottish society expressing dismay at the thought of another referendum, the most testing challenge for Ms Sturgeon remains winning around public opinion.