Nicola Sturgeon is rapidly running out of options in Scotland

Scottish independence updates

The writer is director of Reform Scotland, a think-tank

To listen to Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, it is only a matter of time. At the devolved parliament in Edinburgh this week she unveiled the Scottish National party’s governing pact with the Scottish Greens and insisted the deal makes the case for a second independence referendum “undeniable”. 

Sturgeon went into May’s Holyrood election seeking a mandate for such a referendum, having lost the first in 2014. But although her party won a fourth consecutive term it failed to secure an overall majority, and opposition politicians argued convincingly that it lacked both the moral authority and electoral support for a second vote on breaking up the UK. The first minister now claims that by striking a deal with the Greens — which gives the junior party two non-cabinet ministerial jobs — the addition of their eight seats provides the government with both the majority and the mandate it requires. 

Sadly for Sturgeon, this is unlikely to wash. Her new governing partners — it is not a full coalition and the smaller, leftwing party has carved out the right to vote against administration policy in key areas such as economic growth and energy — have long backed independence and could have been counted on to support the relevant legislation from the backbenches anyway. 

Further, Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, shows little inclination to sanction a referendum, and is under no real political pressure to do so. Polls also indicate weary Scottish voters have no overwhelming desire for a return to the ballot box on the issue in the near future. 

That hasn’t stopped the SNP and the Greens putting independence at the heart of their power-sharing deal. Their 51-page policy agreement promises a referendum within “the current parliamentary session on a specific date to be determined by the Scottish Parliament”. If the Covid crisis allows, they want it within the first half of Holyrood’s five-year session, which lasts until 2026. 

The great unknown is how this is to be achieved. The Scottish parliament needs permission from Westminster to hold a referendum, and Johnson’s Conservatives are likely to continue to say no. Even if, as expected, there is a UK general election in spring 2023, it seems unlikely that enough would change to hand the SNP compelling new momentum. The party already has 48 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats and would not be expected to do much better. 

Scottish Green party co-leaders Patrick Harvie, left, and Lorna Slater arrive at the main chamber of the Scottish Parliament © Jane Barlow/Pool/Getty

This leaves Sturgeon, who is facing growing unrest among a fractious and frustrated Yes movement, with few options. She has repeatedly ruled out the possibility of a “wildcat” referendum, held without London’s permission, accepting such a step would lack legitimacy.

One of the Scottish independence movement’s strengths has been its historic adherence to the democratic pursuit of its goal. When it was less popular, the SNP had a policy that winning a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster would be the trigger to begin negotiations over separation, but it has held such a majority since 2015. These days, the route to independence is through Holyrood. 

The first minister may clear up her plans when she launches the administration’s programme for government next week. She is unlikely to pull a haggis from a hat, however. Instead, it seems likely that the Scottish government will in due course announce a referendum in the knowledge that the matter will end up in the courts. 

This will not be the first example of Edinburgh using Lawfare against London. The UK Supreme Court is due to rule on an attempt by the devolved government to pass two bills — the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) bill and the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) bill — which the UK government claims are ultra vires. The court is expected to side with Westminster. 

Critics believe Sturgeon’s administration deliberately set up this confrontation. In the absence of a straightforward democratic process, the Nationalists wish to show that Scotland’s ability to decide its own future is constrained by its membership of the union. In this way, it hopes to build up support for independence, which currently sits below 50 per cent, having risen as high as 58 per cent at one point last year. 

There is only so far political prestidigitation can take you, though. Without clear public support for both a referendum and independence, the SNP is snookered. There is no point winning the right to hold one so quickly only to lose it again, which would set back the Nationalist cause by generations.

Sturgeon will want to be in a much stronger position before calling a vote. In this light, a highly public ding-dong with Westminster and the full might of the British state can only be viewed as desirable. It might also be the best the first minister can hope for. 

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