The rocky road to independence

For months, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to provide more information on another independence referendum, as soon as the timing and form of Brexit becomes clear. With little forthcoming on the Brexit front, Sturgeon faced pressure within her own party and more broadly to set out a way forward. In a statement at Holyrood just a few days before the SNP gathered in Edinburgh for its Spring conference, she did so. Those hoping for a detailed prospectus for independence, or a date for another referendum, were likely to be disappointed but the remarks reflected strategic considerations for the SNP in pursuit of independence.
Her statement at Holyrood acknowledged ongoing uncertainty about Brexit and criticised the Leave campaign and the ‘incompetence’ of the UK Government in triggering Article 50 and failing to build a consensus across the country. She also spoke to her government’s efforts to broker a compromise, with proposals for maintaining the single market and customs union and a second referendum on the Brexit question. Sturgeon’s speech returned to familiar themes – Westminster wasn’t working for Scotland and Scotland’s will, expressed on the 23 June 2016 and in subsequent elections had been disregarded. Brexit, she argued, presented a fundamental threat to the health, wealth and well-being of Scotland, and independence was the only way forward, setting out plans for a framework referendum bill to be on the books by the end of the year, before seeking a section 30 order. 
Acknowledging deep divisions within society and the polarization of debate around both Scottish independence and the European Union, the First Minister proposed two venues for further debate. A challenge was issued to unionist parties to engage in cross-party talks and find agreement on areas where Scotland’s devolution settlement could be strengthened within the United Kingdom. She also presented a proposal for a Citizens’ Assembly to explore the future of Scotland and the challenges of Brexit. This likely took inspiration from the National Conversations held by the party in its first term in office, a way of fostering dialogue and debate about constitutional change, reassuring activists that independence remained on the agenda, and highlighting perceived inadequacies of unionist parties on the constitution. 
Nicola Sturgeon returned to the microphone just a few days later, this time in her capacity as leader of the Scottish National Party, addressing the party faithful rather than MSPs. She spoke to the SNP’s accomplishments in government and set out commitments for the remainder of the Parliamentary term, contrasting this with the incompetence of Westminster and the UK Government. Her themes were the same – Westminster was characterised by a broken system and broken promises made to Scotland after the referendum. These, she argued, necessitated independence.
She acknowledged that the context for independence had changed, that the process and prospect of Brexit necessitated a new vision of independence. But those looking for a detailed prospectus on independence may be disappointed. The party leadership threw its weight behind the proposals set out in 2016’s Sustainable Growth Commission, but party membership rebelled on the issue of currency. A proposal to keep the pound in the medium-term overturned by an amendment which called for an early establishment of an independent Scottish currency.  
In both speeches, she signalled her commitment to doing everything in her power to avoid a no-deal Brexit and keep the United Kingdom in the European Union. Only when these efforts had failed, she pledged, would Scotland embark upon a path for independence. In both speeches, she acknowledged that the case for independence had not yet been won. Her words and tone stressed moderation, caution, and conciliation. In both contexts, she called on parties and citizens opposed to independence to enter into dialogue about what Scotland’s future might hold. She also sought to harness the energy of SNP members and activists, perceived as some as losing patience with the First Minister’s cautious approach, although recent studies of membership suggest otherwise.
Although little new details emerged about when Scots might again return to the polls and what they might vote on once there, we can understand these speeches in light of the strategic considerations facing the party. The SNP seeks another referendum but also knows it must win it, avoiding the fate of the Parti Quebecois and its two referendums. Current polling suggests it would be a very tight race. Rather than being a boon for the party, Brexit may make the case for independence more challenging. The 2014 prospectus would need to be reconsidered, as it was predicated on both an independent Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom as EU member states. 
In addition, the precedent set in 2014, that a referendum would be negotiated and agreed with the UK Government, is likely to stand, as the party fears questions about legitimacy and legal challenges to some sort of consultative vote. The strategy of the party seems to be to exercise patience in hopes the intransigence of number 10 bolsters support for independence and that another occupant of that house might be more amenable to a referendum. 

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Coree Brown Swan's picture
University of Edinburgh
9th May 2019
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