Resetting the agenda?
Nicola Sturgeon has backtracked on her plans to hold indyref2 in 2018 but the issue is far from dead
Harold Wilson might have thought a week was a long time in politics but in the current climate, three months is a lifetime.
In March, Nicola Sturgeon announced that she would put the wheels into motion for a second independence referendum in autumn 2018.
She said as a result of Brexit, Scotland stood at a crossroads and added: “It is important that Scotland is able to exercise the right to choose our own future at a time when the options are clearer than they are now, but before it is too late to decide on our own path.
“By the time a choice comes to be made, there must be greater clarity about Brexit and its implications for us.
“It is just as important that there is clarity about the implications of independence. And there will be.”
In response, Theresa May, then still basking in the mistaken confidence that she and the Conservative Party were politically untouchable, famously said that “now is not the time”.
In an interview, May added: “Just at this point, all our energies should be focused on our negotiations with the European Union about our future relationship.
“To be talking about an independence referendum will make it more difficult for us to be able to get the right deal for Scotland, and the right deal for the UK.
“And more than that, I think it wouldn’t be fair to the people of Scotland because they’re being asked to make a crucial decision without all the necessary information – without knowing what the future partnership would be, or what the alternative of an independent Scotland would look like.”
Fast forward three months and we’re in a very different political climate.
The country is still recovering from a snap general election which produced bad results for both the Tories, who failed to return the majority May was so confident of, and the SNP, who lost 21 MPs, compared to the number they returned in 2015.
Despite poor results across the UK as a whole, the Conservatives did very well north of the border with 12 new MPs joining David Mundell at Westminster.
In Scotland, the Tories ran on a ticket of opposing a second independence referendum and the tactic proved successful. Labour also did far better than in 2015 and fighting against independence was very prominent in their campaign too.
The SNP on the other hand floundered. The results made it clear that the people of Scotland were not happy with Sturgeon’s plans to drag the country through another independence referendum.
The party’s general election campaign was widely panned, with George Kerevan, who lost his seat, saying it was “all over the shop”.
In the wake of the election, Sturgeon promised to “reflect carefully” on the “disappointing result” which she acknowledged was owed in part to the idea of a second vote. With their numbers at Westminster so decimated and the prospect of another indyref fading, the main opposition parties crowed with glee.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson called plans for a second referendum “a massive political miscalculation”. She said: “Nobody will condemn the First Minister if she now decides to reset her course.
“This is her opportunity to do so – and I urge her to take it immediately. She must take it off the table.”
And last week Sturgeon did just that, temporarily, and even used the exact term coined by her political rival.
In a statement to Holyrood, the First Minister said: “The Scottish Government remains strongly committed to the principle of giving Scotland a choice at the end of the process.
“However, I reassure people that our proposal is not to have a referendum now or before there is sufficient clarity about the options, but rather to give them a choice at the end of the Brexit process when that clarity has emerged.
“I am therefore confirming…that, having listened and reflected, the Scottish Government will reset the plan that I set out on 13 March.
“We will not seek to introduce the legislation for an independence referendum immediately. Instead, we will, in good faith, redouble our efforts and put our shoulder to the wheel in seeking to influence the Brexit talks in a way that protects Scotland’s interests.
“We will seek to build maximum support around the proposals that are set out in the paper that we published in December to keep us in the single market, with substantial new powers for this Parliament. We will do everything that we can to influence the UK in that direction.
“At the end of the period of negotiation with the EU, which is likely to be around next autumn, when the terms of Brexit will be clearer, we will come back to Parliament to set out our judgment on the best way forward at that time, including our view on the precise timescale for offering people a choice over the country’s future.”
However, Ruth Davidson was not happy with the announcement, saying the statement failed to “give people any assurance that the First Minister has been listening”.
“Instead, she appears to be in denial about her mistakes over this last year and, as a result, is leaking credibility and confidence in her leadership by the hour,” she said.
Davidson added: “Her response hasn’t been to reflect.
“It’s been simply to lash out at the UK Government at every opportunity and to sing the same old songs in the same old tune.
“She now claims to be putting the referendum to one side.
“She should just give the country some certainty and take it off the table for the rest of this parliament at least.”
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale also said that Sturgeon was not listening and she believes the “threat of an unwanted second independence referendum is dead”.
Dugdale said: “And this didn’t happen because Nicola Sturgeon wanted it to, the people of Scotland have taken that decision for her.
“But the First Minister is digging her heels in, putting her fingers in her ears, and pressing on regardless. She’s not listening.
“The people of Scotland sent her a clear message at the general election: get on with the day job. She must listen and get on with improving our schools, fixing our NHS and growing our economy.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “The First Minister has had a long hard think about her plans for independence. And after that long hard think the First Minister has concluded that the First Minister should call another independence referendum at a time of the First Minister’s choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed.
“The First Minister is still seeking a Section 30 order from Westminster which would give her the power to call the referendum whenever she chooses. She has not budged an inch from the position she set out in March.
“The First Minister should trigger a vote in the Scottish Parliament to rule out another independence referendum for the entirety of this parliamentary term.
“The people spoke loud and clear at the general election that they did not want another divisive independence referendum. She should listen.”
While this move is clearly a climbdown for the SNP, it cannot be described as a victory for the unionist parties.
Sturgeon has taken a second independence vote off the table, for now, which has undoubtedly caused concern for some SNP voters. Shortly after the announcement, former SNP minister Marco
Biagi tweeted: “The messaging on this indyref announcement now seems to be all over the shop. Danger is everyone hearing what they *least* want to hear.”
However, the popularity of Sturgeon among her supporters is such that this is likely to be short lived. After all, last week’s announcement was not so much a U-turn as a backtrack. If any of her political opponents thought she would remove plans for a second referendum from the agenda permanently – Theresa May had earlier called on Sturgeon to do just that – they were surely living with the PM in another universe.
Undeniably, while the SNP lost many MPs last month and their vote share was slashed, it still has the most Scottish MPs and the largest number of MSPs, albeit without an overall majority.
Also, following her announcement last week, Sturgeon told journalists that she thought it was still “likely” there could be a second referendum during the lifetime of the current Scottish Parliament, which will continue until 2021. This further shows how much independence is still on the agenda and is, for better or worse, likely to dominate political debate as much as it has since the SNP came to power in 2007.
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