IT WAS THE TIMING that surprised the most. Everyone expected Nicola Sturgeon to come out and demand Westminster approval for a second independence referendum, but most did not expect her to move so soon.
For the past months, Scotland’s First Minister had slowly been painting herself into a corner, with increasingly shrill rhetoric around the need for a rerun of the 2014 referendum vote. Rumours did the rounds that she was being pushed by elements within her party, among them her predecessor Alex Salmond, to take a gamble and go for a referendum notwithstanding opinion polls showing that a substantial majority of Scots would disapprove of such a move. It was, however, always thought she would wait until Article 50 was triggered, and the UK was officially on the way out of the EU, at which point the Scottish Government’s could complain that their views, purportedly on behalf of the Scottish people, had been ignored by Westminster.
But, in the end, Nicola Sturgeon jumped first, calling a press conference on Monday to tell the assembled hacks that she was now seeking an independence referendum between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019, to give the Scottish people “a choice” between two futures, one linked to the EU, the other linked to the rest of the United Kingdom. It was a gamble of substantial proportions from the normally cautious leader.
If the SNP had expected a surge of public support in the days that followed, then it was quickly disappointed. The most furious reaction came from those who had voted No in 2014, who were told at that time that this was “once in a generation”, or even a “once in a lifetime” vote. Remembering the bitterness and division caused by the 2014 vote, they couldn’t believe that the First Minister was proposing to put Scotland through this again.
An online petition to Westminster calling for a referendum to be blocked, in strident terms, attracted an astonishing 150,000 signatures in just two days. My email inbox, and office phone were deluged with furious constituents, appalled that the SNP were taking us down the route of a referendum for a second time, and offering money or practical help with any No campaign. The media reaction was overall negative, unconvinced by the First Minister’s reasoning that a referendum was essential at this time.
It did not take long for the SNP’s position to start to unravel. The rationale for a second referendum was that Scotland was being “taken out of the EU against our will”, and therefore the only way to secure Scotland’s place in the EU would be to vote for independence. But it soon became apparent that full EU membership was no longer the destination sought by the SNP for Scotland. It might be a long-term ambition, but in the near future all that was being offered was EFTA membership as held by Norway. Whilst this might help placate those 2014 Yes voters who had also voted Leave in the EU referendum, it did create a huge black hole in the intellectual argument for a pro-independence vote.
Ultimately, however, it was never up to Nicola Sturgeon to determine the terms of a referendum, or indeed whether one could even take place. All eyes therefore turned to Theresa May, to await what reaction would come from the UK Government to Sturgeon’s request. And, wisely, May did not respond immediately, but waited for the dust to settle to gauge the public mood.
On Thursday Nicola Sturgeon had her answer. Both from Theresa May and Ruth Davidson came the same message: we won’t agree to a referendum now. There cannot be a vote until the Scottish people are in a position to make an informed decision, and that won’t happen until we know how Brexit has played out, and when the SNP offers any clarity on the alternative that it offers. And there needs to be clear consent from the Scottish people to a referendum taking place.
In taking the stance that she did, Theresa May was speaking for the majority of people in Scotland. All the polling evidence suggests that only a small minority of Scots actually want a re-run of the 2014 referendum this soon. Even many of those who support independence don’t want to be put through a referendum again.
So there is no public demand for a referendum, outwith the ranks for the SNP’s shrillest supporters. The overwhelming response I find from both people in business is that after the 2014 referendum, after the EU referendum, and after both the Scottish and General Elections in the last three years, they all want a period of peace and stability. The additional complication of a second independence referendum is simply not welcome.
But it is also clear that if we are to have another independence referendum, we need to know exactly what we are voting for. If the SNP’s justification for asking the 2014 question again is that Britain is leaving the EU, then we need to know exactly what Brexit means for both Scotland and the UK as a whole. What is more, we need to know what the SNP alternative is, is it full EU membership, with all that might entail in terms of adopting the Euro, or is it simply EFTA membership as is now being suggested? These questions are unlikely to be resolved in the next two years.
Theresa May’s bold decision is not one without risk. There has always been a concern that Westminster being seen to say No to the Scottish Government might create a backlash. And yet the irony of a First Minister demanding in increasingly hysterical tones that the UK Government has to respect votes in the Scottish Parliament, when she herself routinely ignores Parliamentary defeats for her own Government, will not be lost on many observers.
In 2014 we demonstrated there was a Unionist majority in Scotland. Polling evidence would suggest that is still the case, and the people simply don’t want to go through again what they faced then. Theresa May has shown bold leadership in speaking for the Scottish majority.
All eyes will now be on this weekend’s SNP conference to see what the response is. I think we can expect the manufactured outrage to reach boiling point. But it has always been clear that, on this issue, the SNP does not speak for Scotland. That is the role that Theresa May now fulfils.