SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced plans for a second referendum on Scottish independence if Britain leaves the EU. The referendum would be some time before 2021, when the next Holyrood elections take place.
The Scottish Parliament is to pass a “framework Bill” by the end of this year. This will lay down the rules of a second referendum. Westminster’s permission would not be needed to pass the Bill.
Westminster’s permission (known as a Section 30 order) would be needed to stage the referendum itself. But “no UK government”, said Sturgeon, would refuse permission in the face of mass support for independence.
Within a matter of days Sturgeon had collapsed into incoherence.
A second referendum might be held even if Britain did not leave the EU. The rationale for another referendum could be “the way Scotland has been treated”. Or the possibility that Boris Johnson might become Prime Minister.
Somewhat inconsistently, Sturgeon simultaneously claimed that the Tories might be out of office in a matter of weeks. But that would rule out Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister.
The Tories responded to Sturgeon’s announcement by saying that they would not grant a Section 30 order.
Recent opinion polls give conflicting findings about levels of support for independence. According to a poll for the Scotsman, 60% oppose independence. According to a poll for the Times, just 51% oppose independence. In the 2014 referendum it was 55%.
But there appears to be no enthusiasm for a second referendum in the immediate future. In the Scotsman poll just 20% wanted another referendum in the next two years. In the Times poll only 42% wanted another poll in the next five years.
Whichever figures are the more accurate, Sturgeon has dumped her previous line that another referendum would be called only if polls consistently showed 60% support for independence.
What lay behind Sturgeon’s announcement was growing unrest in the nationalist ranks, and the imminence of the 2019 SNP conference, held in Edinburgh last weekend.
Since the 2014 referendum the SNP leadership has promised that a second referendum is imminent. But five years is stretching the meaning of “imminence” to breaking point. And with the SNP conference only days away, Sturgeon needed to find a sop to appease the footsoldiers.
But not everyone was taken in by the sop. Former SNP MSP Kenny MacAskill dismissed Sturgeon’s announcement as a case of “fiddling while Rome burns”, and denounced anyone who believed that there would be a referendum before 2021 as “delusional”.
MacAskill can say that kind of thing because he is no longer an MSP and therefore has nothing to lose. But he is doubtless speaking for a layer of members and elected representatives who are not prepared to risk putting their heads above the parapet.
Infighting in the SNP can only be a cause for celebration. The more of it the better. Unfortunately, it has not impacted on the SNP’s electoral popularity. If a general election were held tomorrow, the SNP would win 51 of Scotland’s 59 seats, and Labour would win just one.