The big test will be how 'now is not the time' plays out in public opinion

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 27 March 2017 in Inside Politics

Theresa May's insistence that there can be no discussion about a second independence referendum at the moment may have given Nicola Sturgeon the perfect excuse to stall

There are still answers to fundamental questions to be answered from the first independence referendum - Image credit: Holyrood

Theresa May’s insistence that “now is not the time” for another argument about independence took on a whole new relevance when the landmark Holyrood debate on a second referendum was suspended as a terrorist attack unfolded at Westminster Bridge.

The parliamentary bureau took their time about it. An appeal by Tory MSP Murdo Fraser to have the debate suspended shortly after the attack was initially rejected.

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie took to Twitter to explain that business managers “thought best to carry on and not give in to such people” – a laudable sentiment given the terrorists’ ambitions to disrupt British life.

But the image of Scottish politicians voting to reject Westminster when its politicians were in mortal danger would have caused a moral outrage, and undoubtedly, would have echoed throughout the debate in the years ahead.


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Eventually, Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh relented after several MSPs walked out and he announced that the debate would be suspended.

However, he pledged that it would be resumed once the dust has settled and respects have been paid.

The suspension is but a short hiatus in an argument that could lead to a longer hiatus before a second referendum is granted.

Despite all the chest-beating about ‘parliamentary sovereignty’, the vote is nothing more than a statement of intent.

It is effectively the SNP seeking to formalise their coalition with the Greens for a second referendum and dress it up as ‘the voice of the parliament’.

Westminster and the opposition benches won’t care. They are no more likely to bow to the ‘will of the parliament’ than they would to Nicola Sturgeon wringing her hands and waving a lone placard outside the Scotland Office.

But the big test will be how ‘now is not the time’ plays out in public opinion.

Few would have disputed that Wednesday was not the time for a vote on constitutional procedure, but that does not mean the clamour for another referendum in late 2018 or early 2019 will cease.

Theresa May’s decision to tell the Scottish Parliament that she will block its demand for a second independence referendum was a courageous move – a sure-fire way to convince many Scots to swallow something that could be bad for them is to tell them that they can’t have it.

No doubt the Prime Minister was emboldened by the polls which showed support for independence was still broadly unchanged from 2014.

Focus groups also, apparently, told the Tories that ‘now is not the time’ would play well in vote-weary Scotland.

But both sides will be scrutinising the next round of polls carefully to ascertain who has gained the edge after the last fortnight’s brawling over sovereign rights and settled wills.

At the time of writing, there has been just one poll since Nicola Sturgeon confirmed her intention to ask the UK Government for permission to hold another referendum, and it found Scots were split right down the middle on the need for a rematch by spring 2019.

The poll was mostly conducted before May’s brush-off, so its full impact has yet to be felt, but it found 49 per cent backed another referendum either during or shortly after the Brexit negotiations, against 51 per cent who said there should not be a referendum at all in the next few years.

Support for independence remained close to 2014 levels at 44 per cent, so May can rightly claim to be speaking for the majority who do not want independence.

But it’s one thing to say, ‘you really shouldn’t do that’ and quite another to say, ‘no, you can’t’.

In a country where the fervour for fags and booze remains above UK levels despite the public smoking ban and multi-buy prohibition, telling Scots to give up their addiction to arguing about the constitution may even push some ardent unionists over the edge.

So May’s move was a genuinely new and unpredictable angle in a referendum rerun that has, to date, been unfolding with predictability.

It adds some extra spice to a debate that was starting to taste rather bland.

The Edinburgh Agreement – which handed Holyrood the power to hold a referendum in 2014 – was applauded across the board for delivering a decisive referendum with a result which, supposedly, would be respected on all sides.

It recognised Scotland’s right to self-determination and presented the British government as comprising a broadly decent bunch who were interested in fair play.

But the Maidenhead knockback recasts Westminster as an authoritative nanny with a ‘no, because I say so’ attitude, a view exacerbated by May’s insistence on preparing Britain’s Brexit stance largely in private: “However frustrating some people find it, the government will not be pressured into saying more than I believe it is in our national interest to say,” said May in January.

Not that Scotland’s own politicians are much better in this regard.

Nicola Sturgeon has refused to give any substantive answers to some of the outstanding questions hanging over from the 2014 campaign: what currency would Scotland use? How will it close its spiralling deficit? Does the SNP even want Scotland to be in the EU at all?

“All in good time,” says Sturgeon, suggesting that Scotland is either not ready for her esoteric wisdom or worse, she does not know the answer – yet.

Aye, there’s the rub for Theresa May. She may believe that she has shot Sturgeon’s fox by blocking – indefinitely for all we know – another independence referendum but all she may have done is handed the First Minister more time.

In fact, one of the complaints about the 2011-14 campaign was that it was too long.

The UK Government was keen, reportedly, on getting the referendum out of the way in 2013, but Alex Salmond secured control over the timing and opted to play the long game.

Those who followed the first referendum closely will remember that most of the chess pieces were in place by the end of 2012 – around the time the Edinburgh Agreement was signed – and the remaining two years was basically a long stare-out with very few new arguments.

‘Scotland’s Future’, released in November 2013, was essentially a compendium of the SNP’s greatest hits that had been released as singles over the previous months, years and sometimes decades.

Perhaps this is why George Osborne’s ‘Sermon on the Pound’, when he ruled out a currency union in February 2014, was such a hammer blow for the nationalists, as it posed a question that they have yet to answer: without a link to the Bank of England, what currency would Scotland use? A pegged currency like Panama? A free-floating independent pound? The euro? Magic beans?

The nationalists did not have a satisfactory answer, but even without Plan B they scored an admirable second place in the independence referendum.

Support for independence grew from less than 30 per cent in 2013 to 45 per cent in the final reckoning – and this should give May some pause for thought.

In her speech to conference, Sturgeon said the Tories are “terrified of the verdict of the Scottish people”.

There are, in fact, a number of reasons why they should be.

The coalition is dead, its former Lib Dem Scottish Secretary disgraced.

Better Together is gone, with its chief Labour cheerleaders victorious but critically wounded by the battle.

And the SNP, widely expected to shrink into the shadows after its independence dream was shattered, went from strength-to-strength, winning all but three Scottish seats in Westminster, and signing up a hoard of new members ready to knock on doors for the cause of Indyref2.

The Tories are having a bit of a mini-renaissance in Scotland, with Ruth Davidson making her mark, but they still only commanded 22 per cent of the vote in May 2016, so the unionist side remains fractured, and the chances of another united front in favour of the Union are remote.

But after an independence referendum, two elections and a divisive Brexit referendum, Scots could decide that they’ve spent enough time hanging around polling booths.

Those addicted to constitutional squabbling may not like being abruptly told to cease and desist – particularly by a London Tory – but there is another phrase beloved of Scots following a long spell of overindulgence: ‘Never again!’

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