After a brief calm before the storm, the whirlwind of Scottish constitutional debate returned two weeks ago as Nicola Sturgeon fired the starting gun on the campaign for a second independence referendum.
Today the SNP & Scottish Greens voted in favour of asking the Westminster Government for a temporary transfer of power to Holyrood to hold another indyref, while Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems voted against.
The battle lines might seem almost exactly the same as 2014 and before, but the circumstances are very different indeed.
First of all, while the Scottish Parliament may have asked the Westminster Government to let them hold another referendum, there’s no guarantee they’ll say yes this time. For 2014’s vote, there was over a year between the SNP’s Scottish election victory and the eventual Edinburgh Agreement that was signed to allow Holyrood to manage it’s own referendum.
This time around, Prime Minister Theresa May hasn’t given the same authority to the SNP Government’s calls for a new indyref, saying last Thursday that “now is not the time” to hold another vote – with two years of Brexit negotiations getting underway shortly before the divorce of the UK and EU is finalised. She’s well within her legal right to stand firm, as the UK Government and Parliament is in charge of the UK’s constitution – and the right to secede or call a vote on secession is beyond the powers of Scotland. This is what Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins was alluding to when he spoke in Holyrood’s debate last Tuesday, and talked about other international precedent where the state refuses to allow nations and regions to vote on their future.
The SNP and Greens are painting May as denying Scotland’s right to have its voice heard, which is in itself a powerful argument to show Westminster’s precedence over Scotland and how it can rule over democracy here with impunity.
What the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems counter with is that the Government is respecting the result of the 2014 referendum and making sure that the UK gets the best Brexit deal possible, without the distraction and potential deal-weakener of a Scottish separation.
The crucial point in the current to-and-fro between Holyrood and Westminster is that May has not ruled out a referendum in future, but just until the quagmire that is Brexit has passed. This means that an indyref in 2020 or 2021 might still be on the cards. May and the UK Government know that denying an independence referendum off the bat would only increase support for a Yes vote, as former No voters see the Westminster stranglehold as being too powerful to stand by. But they hope by delaying it that the hysteria over Brexit may calm, and the focus on traditional bread-and-butter politics may see the public set against the SNP, who are failing on many accounts to govern effectively.
That timeframe could well be ideal for independence, and it might be what Sturgeon has been aiming for all along. It would be enough time after the previous referendum to say that circumstances are completely different, with Brexit and the potential effects of it being well-known at that stage. There would still be a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, so any legislation needed to pass a referendum bill would still be able to succeed. There would also be less voter fatigue, as a vote in 2018 could be the seventh time in just over four years that the public has gone to the polls.
Giving the independence cause this time to get a solid argument built-up around the areas where they were weak last time: currency, EU membership, and the economy; will give them more of a chance to make a fresh and appealing case to the public. This might end up being the best-case scenario for those wanting independence, if they do the work to make this argument as compelling as possible.
As I said several months ago in assessing where the Yes movement needs to be headed if they want to win another indyref, winning over the demographics where Yes is weakest needs to be a priority to shift the pendulum towards independence. This means that pensioners, women and Leave voters need to be more convinced that a Yes vote would leave them better off – something the last indyref didn’t do enough of.
For now, Holyrood’s request for another referendum may seem like it’s falling on deaf ears – but Theresa May’s definitely listening and making another impossible decision on the future of the country she leads. An early vote could cripple the independence cause for a generation, but could break the UK apart in the middle of Brexit negotiations. A later vote could capitalise on growing anti-establishment feeling towards the SNP, but could allow the Yes campaign more time to build a solid independence case.
Scottish independence has become as close to a political game of chess as you’ll find, and how the next few moves go may be crucial in seeing which side come out the victors in what’s looking increasingly like a decisive vote on Scotland’s future. Today’s vote was only the opening gambit, with far more moves to come.