Analysis: Does an earlier Indyref2 look more likely after SNP conference?

With a rhetorical flourish from Nicola Sturgeon on her hope for an independent Scotland, 2018's party conference season came to an end.
Nicola Sturgeon at the conference. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA WireNicola Sturgeon at the conference. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Nicola Sturgeon at the conference. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Weary journalists and fired-up activists went home to chew over what a near month-long blitz of political posturing, gossiping, and serious policy announcements meant for various parties and the country.

The First Minister touched on the SNP’s guiding principle perhaps a little more than many outsiders expected, but with precious little detail.

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Instead, Ms Sturgeon spoke in more general terms about the ‘goal’ of independence, and how she remained optimistic about the prospect of Scotland seperating from the rest of the UK in her life time.

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That’s not to say it wasn’t a central theme of the SNP leaders’ speech, there were 13 mentions of ‘independence’ and 16 mentions of ‘independent’.

Some believe this means that the ‘pause’ announced by Ms Sturgeon in 2017 on a second vote is over, and that the SNP is once again heading towards a referendum footage.

We look at whether another plebiscite is more likely after the speech.

‘Game on’

As Kenny MacAskill noted in his Scotsman column today, there were in fact significant external factors that may have pushed the First Minister away from her ‘pause’.

Tens of thousands of people marched in Edinburgh on the eve of the SNP conference, putting the First Minister, as the titular head of the independence movement, under pressure to ensure that the issue was front and centre in her address.

The former Justice Secretary said it was ‘game on’ for a second referendum, but agreed that ‘delay and change (within the party) there must be’.

However delay and change were not the buzzwords in the air at the pro-independence march in the capital on Saturday, with the organiser claiming afterwards that the ‘passion was there’ for constitutional change.

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There was certainly passion in Nicola Sturgeon’s speech in Glasgow, but that might not be enough for non-SNP independence supporters to keep faith in her as the guarantor of Scotland’s constitutional future.

Impatience and fog

Perhaps most important to note from the First Minister’s speech was not her fulsome endorsement of independence itself, but the lack of concrete plans to achieve that goal.

For all the mentions of independence in the address, there were just two instances of the word ‘referendum,’ and both of those related to the Brexit vote in 2016 and the so-called ‘People’s Vote’ campaign for a second referendum on leaving the EU.

Ms Sturgeon’s announcement that SNP MPs would back a vote on that issue on the commons was perhaps as significant as any pronouncement that she made on Scottish independence.

It is clear that while initially thought an opportunity by some in the SNP (who assumed it would harden the views of pro-EU Scots), Brexit has been damaging for any nascent plans for a second vote on Scottish independence.

Even as the UK prepares to leave the EU in less than six months, the issue looks set to dominate the political landscape for years to come.

Whether there is an agreement or a ‘no deal’ scenario, it is likely that the effects of Britain’s departure will be felt in Scotland and beyond for years to come.

That arguably makes the crucial quote from Ms Sturgeon’s speech when she told activists: “But as we wait - impatiently, at times, I know - for this phase of negotiations to conclude and for the fog of Brexit to clear, be in no doubt about this.

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“The last two years have shown why Scotland needs to be independent.”

There lies the best clue about the First Minister’s plans for another referendum, and those expecting one in the next 12-18 months are almost certain to be disappointed.

As Kenny MacAskill warns, however, there is Holyrood election in 2021 at which a pro-Union majority could feasibly be elected.

Even after Ms Sturgeon’s independence-heavy speech, those factors combine to make the latter half of 2020 still the most likely date of another referendum.

For those marching in Edinburgh on Saturday, and for many activists, that may feel like a lifetime away.

For Unionist politicians, its far too soon, and perhaps even undecided voters would prefer to wait until the ‘fog’ of Brexit has cleared further.

Ms Sturgeon’s speech offered clarity, but shows just how much of a tightrope she must continue to walk on Scotland’s constitutional future.