Ruth Davidson may think the First Minister looked weak offering to take the prospect of another independence referendum off the table in exchange for a soft Brexit last week. But Sturgeon’s “I’m not bluffing” line on yesterday’s Andrew Marr show let voters glimpse the robust flip side of that apparently magnanimous gesture. The minute a soft Brexit is not on the cards, indyref2 will be straight back on the table. And there’s no doubt a hard Brexit is the Prime Minister’s preferred option.
As Nicola Sturgeon delivered her deftly crafted message about consensus and compromise on BBC1, Sky News interviewed an intransigent Prime Minister who warned it would be impossible for Brexiting Britain to keep “bits” of EU membership. It’s hard not to see that as a swift rebuttal to Ms Sturgeon’s appeal for a departure that allows Britain to stay in the single market or a beefed up Scottish Parliament (with new powers over immigration and international treaties) to go it alone. While the First Minister’s coherent stance gained online plaudits from across the UK, Theresa May spent Sunday rebutting criticism by a former EU ambassador that her approach to Brexit is “muddled,” speculation that a key Tory donor will stop funding the party over her “chronic and dangerous” Brexit stance and warnings by a Canadian expert that Britain could take a decade to strike a trade deal with the EU.
Are we locked and loaded for indyref2 as soon as a hard Brexit is declared in March? It’s hard to see how anything else can happen now that Nicola Sturgeon has nailed her colours so firmly to the Single Market mast.
But is that wise? A poll last week suggested 62 per cent of Scots don’t want another indyref during 2017 -- including a third of SNP voters. Support for independence is static at 45.5 per cent and the European referendum demonstrated that a million Scots actually prefer Theresa May’s Leave option to Nicola Sturgeon’s Remain. Will they become automatic No voters in any future independence vote?
Is the SNP leader right to hitch the case and timescale for indyref2 to the single issue of EU membership? I’d say she is.
First, on timing, it’s perfectly possible to announce indyref2 during 2017 but to hold the poll one or two years later, depending on the Brexit process. I well understand no-one wants further political upheaval after the epic and destabilising nature of votes across the world in 2016. But if the choice for Scotland is to choose its own path or to have the wrong one foisted upon it – to change or to be changed – voters may realise there is little option but to revisit our constitutional status within the Brexiting UK.
Secondly, EU single market membership -- whilst important in its own right – is also totemic. In her Marr interview the First Minister effectively said, “If the UK Government can completely ignore Scottish democracy on a big issue like EU membership, does anyone seriously think Scottish interests will matter in any other policy decision reserved to Westminster?”
It’s a good question that’s been occurring to more and more prominent former No voters – even if high profile conversions are still a little way off. Labour’s belated conversion to the merits of federalism and joint working with the SNP simply confirms that piecemeal solutions and middle ways are the solutions of yesteryear.
Thirdly, the Scottish Government’s stress on membership of the single market rather than the full EU suggests it may be considering a halfway house arrangement for an independent Scotland like that enjoyed by Iceland and Norway. Including that as an option for a further post independence referendum might placate Leave voters, especially those in otherwise SNP-supporting fishing communities.
Finally the more Ms Sturgeon sets out her case for a Scottish deal on network TV and radio, the more her open, tolerant outlook on immigration is the one English Remain voters would love to hear from Jeremy Corbyn and the more she assumes the role of Britain’s chief advocate for a soft Brexit – the more insulting, injurious and unfair it will appear to many in Scotland and beyond when her overtures are roundly rejected by a Prime Minister whose outlook on almost every issue feels reactionary and foreign.
Most importantly though, the present 45 per cent support for independence has been achieved without a single column-inch or broadcast-minute of active campaigning for that goal. Sure, independence has been mentioned frequently as a bargaining chip. But a million mentions don’t constitute a campaign.
That effectively begins this weekend with the Build conference in Glasgow. Eight hundred people have paid a tenner each to attend and speakers include the Growth Commission’s Andrew Wilson and Cabinet Minister Angela Constance. It’s organised by the Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) an umbrella group including every pro independence party like the SNP, Greens and RISE. But SIC is largely the vehicle of the Yes movement groups with large, active branch networks like Women for Independence, Common Weal, Radical Independence and Yes2. Set up in 2005, SIC went into abeyance during the “official” Yes campaign but it has reassembled before the chequered flag for indyref2 is raised for some very good reasons.
Firstly, positions on everything from the shared currency to the colour of badges were handed down from on high to Yes supporters in 2013. Such a top-down approach isn’t desirable, necessary or possible second time around. But neither is a welter of arguments within the Yes camp. So the best time to debate key policy platforms is now – before indyref2 is formally triggered and policies become articles of faith and tablets of stone.
Secondly, the SNP is the party of government in Scotland and opposition at Westminster. It plays independence as a card in those games as it must – but who is conducting the argument for independence day in, day out? The wider Yes movement is ready to debate, organise and fundraise to perform that role.
Finally, Nicola Sturgeon says the Scottish people will decide the timing of the next indyref. How is that possible without some debate or activity to focus minds?
This may be the week indyref2 becomes inevitable.
Mark the calendar folks.