Lesley Riddoch: Now is the time for Nicola Sturgeon to reignite Scottish independence debate

The First Minister must move on a second Scottish referendum or the moment will have passed, argues Lesley Riddoch.

An interesting exch­ange occurred on yesterday’s Andrew Marr show between the BBC presenter and guest Nicola Sturgeon.

The First Minister said: “One thing is beyond any doubt, the implications of Scotland not being independent are stark. Scotland has been sidelined.”

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Andrew Marr replied: “So why don’t you have a second referendum?” Nicola Sturgeon responded: “You will have to wait for that statement – that will not be in the too distant future.”

Nicola Sturgeon must move on second independence referendum before the moment passes, writes Lesley. Picture: John Devlin

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Nicola Sturgeon: decision on Scottish independence vote in '˜not-too-distant fut...

So far, so unremarkable. The SNP leader’s been producing that “wait and see” line since last year’s snap general election. Even though it failed to convince when trotted out in response to Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens during First Ministers Questions last week when he pointed out that waiting for clarity over Brexit might mean waiting forever.

Now maybe it’s no bad thing to have folk urging you to move a bit faster towards your constitutional destination of choice. But maybe it’s also a little weird.

Commentators north and south of the Border assume the Scottish Government must be close to some kind of announcement on a second indyref, given the degree to which Scotland has been visibly carved out of the Brexit process, denied any whiff of the differential deals that proved possible for Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and Cyprus despite Scots voting more overwhelmingly to stay in the EU.

But Nicola Sturgeon and Mike Russell spent the weekend promoting another cause – urging the UK to stay in the Single Market like Norway and Iceland and remain in the Customs Union (like neither). Now of course retaining single market membership is a reasonable enough suggestion.

Norway joined the halfway house after two referenda rejected EU membership so they could keep their recently-won political independence but win single market access for their outward facing economy.

Access to the single market is not a great solution but it’s a heck of a lot more popular in Norway than full EU membership (18 per cent) or leaving the single market to plough the lonely free trade furrow advocated by Britain’s hard Brexiteers.

But there are cultural reasons why single market access can work for Norway but not for Britain. Firstly, the arrangement means being a “rule-taker.” That may be easier for a small country that was never a full EU member in the first place than once “mighty” Britain where the very idea of “rule-taking” prompts overwrought talk about “vassal states”.

Secondly, the acceptance of less-than-perfect deals is an everyday occurrence in Norway because it’s had proportional representation since 1921 and thus daily experience of negotiation and compromise. Westminster’s first-past-the-post system, by contrast, breeds a confrontational “no surrender” approach to international relations which would make Britain a very bad fit with the small, consensual EEA nations.

Thirdly, membership of the single market means accepting freedom of movement. This doesn’t particularly bother the Norwegians, who were part of a Nordic Travel Area 40 years before Schengen and joined that club despite remaining outside the EU to make life and travel easier for citizens and neighbours. Sadly though, freedom of movement is a massively big deal for the millions of Britons who voted to leave the EU.

So while single market membership may make sense on paper, there’s absolutely no way the closet Brexiteer Jeremy Corbyn or the Ukip-fearing Theresa May (or her successor) will ever consider single market membership because it ends the illusion that control over British borders can ever be “taken back”. So, since neither the Tories nor Labour will ever accept this halfway house, why are the SNP still pushing it? Are they virtue signalling – demonstrating that the Scottish Government can embrace a rational solution to Britain’s Brexit problems even if it cannot be stomached by No 10? If so, why bother?

It’s hard to see how much more virtue the Scottish Government can possibly accumulate over Brexit.

Scottish voters not living on another planet since 2016 are fully aware that we voted to remain, the Scottish Government published an options document a full year before Westminster, political parties here are fairly relaxed about freedom of movement and even Ruth Davidson could support single market access as long as no one from London was watching. But if this virtuous solution has no hope of being implemented, why does the SNP spend its only moment of UK-wide media continuing to advocate solutions for the whole of the UK when that makes it almost impossible to start making the case for independence?

As Britain’s constitutional crisis likely deepens this week, every other party will be laying out its stall – whether that is A Peoples’ Vote, A No Deal Brexit, Theresa May’s deal, a Tory leadership challenge or a general election. But Scottish independence is nowhere to be seen. Of course, everyone accepts that naming the date for another referendum is indeed impossible with uncertainty all around. But it seems that worry about naming a date is also stopping Nicola Sturgeon from making a case – and that’s becoming problematic.

Scottish voters are being plunged into a Black Friday-style sale of constitutional options and voters are thinking deeply about the future (or switching off completely).

Does the SNP believe swithering Scots will hold onto their democratic currency, ignore all the whizzy offers being laid before them and keep their powder dry till the Indy Express finally rolls into town? If it takes too long, swithering voters may have returned to the Union fold.

So it’s just as well the Greens have decided to move into the unoccupied political space of the Independence movement.

Yesterday, Scottish Greens co-convener Maggie Chapman wrote about the need to get updated, Brexit-framed, modern arguments for independence into the public domain as a matter of urgency. SNP MP Mhairi Black made similar points.

Many Yes activists are praying the SNP leadership has got over the snap election and will start talking in detail about the independence scenario it exists to promote.

If Oscar Wilde is right and the only thing worse than being talked about is indeed not being talked about, then Westminster is actually winning as an institution by being the sole focus of attention right now.

Playing it safe can be laudable – but not being a player at a time like this is not an option.