Sketch: Is indyref2 off the table?
Parliamentary sketch: Nicola Sturgeon's announcement on a second referendum proved Scottish politics is as weird as ever
When the First Minister said she had an important announcement to make on independence, no one knew exactly what to make of it. The fact they didn’t have any more of an idea afterwards seemed beside the point.
Taking to her feet in a packed chamber, Nicola Sturgeon told everyone the SNP still supports independence, and it still thinks we should have a vote because of Brexit, but it’s not sure exactly when. “We will not seek to introduce the legislation for an independence referendum immediately,” she said. “Instead, we will redouble our efforts and put our shoulder to the wheel in seeking to influence the Brexit talks.”
As an announcement it was bold, dynamic and confusing – SNP backbenchers looked delighted. For too long, opposition parties had been pushing the First Minister to hold a referendum on Scottish independence immediately. Finally, someone had taken a strong stand.
But Ruth Davidson, who seems less concerned about Scotland turning into a one-party state since she was given an honorary position in the British Army, wanted something more concrete, demanding the FM takes the prospect of a second referendum “off the table for the rest of this session of Parliament”.
Exactly what Davidson wanted Sturgeon to do with the prospect of indyref2 after taking it off the table wasn’t clear. Presumably, put it in some sort of constitutional filing cabinet. Still, with Scotland having been stuck in a state of constitutional limbo since 2014, arguing about ‘the Table’ is really the only thing uniting Scotland’s various parties. Ruth Davidson wants independence off the Table, while Nicola Sturgeon maintains it is still sitting there.
The Table was mentioned eight times in the course of this one debate alone, and there’s clearly only one way forward. It’s time to find this Table. Locate the Table, and you settle the constitution. The FM should, as a matter of urgency, set up some kind of cross-party fact-finding mission, with MSPs from every party sent to search furniture warehouses, antiques shops and people’s homes until it is found.
So what did Scottish Labour make of it all? To Kezia Dugdale, “the threat of an unwanted second independence referendum is dead”, though she didn’t look particularly happy about it. The problem, she said, is that “the First Minister’s digging her heels in, putting her fingers in her ears, and pressing on regardless. She’s not listening.”
The threat of independence is dead but also, the FM continues to threaten it. It was confusing, not least because Dugdale seemed to be accusing Sturgeon of digging her heels in and pushing forward at the same time. It would suggest she is being dragged, or possibly standing on some sort of moving walkway, like in airports. And given she has “her fingers in her ears”, there is no way of warning her. It’s like someone listening to an MP3 player on a lilo – you can warn them they are being dragged out to sea by the current, but they won’t hear you.
Patrick Harvie followed, representing the only other party pushing for a second vote. The Greens had originally suggested this should come about as a result of a “Citizens’ initiative”. However, upon learning that most citizens’ initiative did not extend to organising referendums, they had been forced to throw in with the SNP’s plan of basically chancing it.
Sadly for them Sturgeon seemed to be stalling, and Harvie was disappointed, pointing out to Sturgeon that delaying the referendum would mean it happened later.
The Lib Dems were next, so what would it be? Would the Lib Dem leader accept the FM’s argument and agree she’d done the right thing? A sense of anticipation grew. People edged forward in their seats. If they’d found the Table, they would have gripped it. Would he back her? Willie Rennie or Won’t He Rennie?
He would not. “The First Minister had a long, hard think about it and the First Minister concluded that the First Minister should call another independence referendum at a time of the First Minister’s choosing – so absolutely nothing has changed.”
It’s hard to describe the chaos that followed. Neil Findlay helpfully pointed out the SNP had been on the losing side in two referendums. Ben Macpherson, the FM’s parliamentary liaison officer, provoked derision by using his question to ask if Sturgeon still believed the possibility of a second vote “should remain on the Table?”
Jackson Carlaw, approaching the debate with all the intellectual preparation of a football fan climbing into a foreign fountain, asked if the FM knew she’d lost votes at the general election.
Sturgeon repeated herself. Backbenchers clapped. Frontbenchers pointed at each other. Everyone shouted. The easiest way to understand it is probably just to imagine a crow stuck in a tumble drier.
It was all quite confusing. In one day, the SNP had won the election and lost the election, and had abandoned plans for indyref2, delayed them, and changed nothing at all. Independence is both on the Table and off the Table, while the FM also wants a seat at the Brexit Table, meaning there are at least two Tables.
Scottish politics rolls on, the same as ever. Nothing has changed.
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Regardless of whether you think the SNP acted childishly in walking out of the House of Commons in protest, the symbolism was obvious