Can Nicola Sturgeon really hold a second referendum in 2023?
When, in the run-up to May’s election, Nicola Sturgeon pledged not to hold a second independence referendum until after the pandemic, even the staunchest supporter of the Union must have hoped that point would come sooner rather than later.
Yet eighteen months into dealing with the challenges of Covid, there is still no end in sight. While there have been causes for optimism, notably the vaccine rollout and the attendant fall in the number of people becoming seriously ill, the situation remains precarious.
Earlier this month when the First Minister announced her intention to hold a second referendum by the end of 2023, MSPs spent part of the same the week voting to introduce a controversial vaccine certification scheme amid some of the highest infection rates in Europe.
There is genuine concern Scotland’s NHS will this winter face a perfect storm of Covid, flu and ongoing staffing pressures caused by the pandemic.
With all that going on, it’s little wonder Sturgeon flashed her trump card. The prospect of a second independence vote is, after all, the reason many continue to back a party which has now been in government for 14 years and looks to be running out of ideas.
And all the indications are that support for independence remains on a knife-edge.
After a series of polls showing a narrow majority in favour of staying in the UK, research published by Opinium earlier this month found 51 per of voters would back separation in a referendum – the first poll showing a lead for Yes since the end of April.
But on the matter of when to hold the referendum, things are a little more clear-cut – only 31 per cent of those polled think it should be within the next two years, although that figure has risen slightly since May.
It’s perhaps this second figure that is more important for Sturgeon as she continues to stave off attacks from within the independence movement that she is not moving quickly enough.
These growing levels of resentment over the rate of progress towards a second vote were what Alex Salmond hoped to capitalise on with the formation of Alba earlier this year.
While Alba performed poorly at the election, the party – and perhaps more importantly the sense of frustration which drives it – has not gone away.
Speaking at his party’s first conference earlier this month, Salmond said his one-time deputy was making “no progress whatsoever” towards a second vote. Addressing delegates, he likened Sturgeon to the Grand Old Duke of York: “The next line of that song is Rule Britannia – and that’s exactly what will happen if we constantly march people up to the top of the hill and march them down again.”
Salmond has now enlisted campaigner Robin McAlpine to write The Wee Alba Book, the party’s case for independence. It will be edited by Stuart Campbell, founder of Wings Over Scotland, whose Wee Blue Book was widely shared in independence-supporting circles in the run-up to the 2014 vote.
Outside of Salmond and his party, however, appetite for an imminent referendum remains low, particularly among those undecideds the Yes campaign will need to win over.
But while it may still be some time off, Sturgeon knows she needs to continue to dangle the carrot of a second vote, even if the UK Government currently shows no sign of acquiescing.
An impressive figure for much of the pandemic, Sturgeon has lost some of that sure-footedness of late and appeared visibly rattled when heckled by Tory MSP Tess White during First Minister’s Questions recently.
If any leader can navigate the bumps in the road that lie ahead, it’s Sturgeon, but that doesn’t mean life will be easy. First and potentially most damaging of all could be the introduction of vaccine passports.
While introduced elsewhere, they have not been without controversy. In France, where the pass sanitaire is required as proof of vaccination before entering most venues, there have been huge demonstrations on the streets.
The proposed Scottish system is more modest but has nevertheless managed to alienate many of those in the business community, including the Scottish Chambers of Commerce which called them an “economic deterrent” which could damage recovery from the pandemic. Those in charge of Scottish football have raised concerns about the practicalities of checking the passports of thousands of supporters on match days.
It has also been suggested that far from encouraging vaccine take-up, the scheme may increase vaccine hesitancy, an argument put forward by Scottish Labour. That has not been the case in France, for example, where the introduction of the pass sanitaire appeared to boost vaccination rates.
Scotland’s vaccine certification scheme is due to be introduced on 1 October following a vote in the Scottish Parliament in which the Scottish Greens – once opposed to the idea – voted in support of the SNP, their new partners in the cooperation agreement.
But the Greens themselves could be storing up trouble for Sturgeon. Ahead of her party conference, she was asked about the Green’s refusal to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, an issue which threatened to tear the Labour Party apart under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
Speaking to ITV’s Peter Smith, Sturgeon said: “The Scottish Government’s position on antisemitism is clear and that’s the one all ministers are expected to sign up to and agree to.”
It’s the sort of uncomfortable issue the First Minister could no doubt do without addressing on the eve of her party conference, but one she needs to take seriously now that the Greens sit in her government. It’s also one her political opponents are not likely to let her forget.
But if difficult times lie ahead for Sturgeon, then that is especially true when it comes to reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which would remove the medical requirements currently in place before a trans person can legally change their gender.
The public debate, much of it taking place on social media, has become increasingly fevered in recent months. Earlier this month, hundreds of women gathered outside the Scottish Parliament, demonstrating against reform of the GRA and booing mentions of Sturgeon and the Greens.
When Tory MSP Murdo Fraser mentioned that protest during a debate, it was Sturgeon’s turn to heckle, shouting “shame on you” across the chamber.
It’s not clear exactly what the First Minister was getting at but appearing to dismiss out of hand the concerns of those women – concerns Sturgeon says are “not valid” – was not a good look.
It may also upset many of those in her own party who are uneasy about the reforms. In 2019, Kate Forbes, Ivan McKee and Ash Denham were among those who signed a letter calling for the reforms not to be rushed.
Almost seven years into her leadership of both the party and the country, it is ideas which Sturgeon badly needs – ideas for how to tackle child poverty, educational attainment, the challenges facing Scotland’s NHS and the national catastrophe of the drugs death crisis.
But independence is Sturgeon’s only big idea. For those unhappy with the some of the policy decisions of her government, it is the light at the end of the tunnel, the end that justifies the means.
The First Minister’s announcement at Holyrood that she is aiming to have a second referendum by late 2023 therefore stripped her conference speech of its one potential blockbuster moment. What was left felt anaemic and uninspired.
“I hope the Scottish and UK governments can reach agreement – as we did in 2014 – to allow the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland to be heard and respected,” Sturgeon told delegates in a speech delivered remotely from her home.
“Democracy must – and will – prevail,” she added.
Yet even before the First Minister had finished speaking, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson was dismissing the idea of a second referendum.
In one breath Sturgeon talked of a “spirit of cooperation” with the UK Government, but then accused Westminster of attempting to “inflict damage” on Scotland.
“By making us poorer, they’ll say we can’t afford independence,” she said. The Tories said it sounded like a conspiracy theory. They had a point.
There are difficult weeks and months ahead for the First Minister, not least in tackling a predicted winter surge in Covid cases.
The prospect of a second independence referendum continues to feel remote.