WHEN Nicola Sturgeon pushed the pause button on indyref2 in June 2017 the conventional wisdom was it was the “sensible thing to do”.
But on the eighth anniversary today of the 2014 independence referendum, it’s worth asking: how will her decision be assessed in years to come? Will the historians of the future think this may have actually been the time to act?
The SNP was bruised by the results of the June 2017 General Election which saw it lose 21 seats and there was suspicion the pro-EU indy message being pushed too fast lay behind the losses (this may have been a factor in the northeast).
However, inside the SNP there was another view that argued the party didn’t lose ground by campaigning for independence, but by not campaigning hard enough for it, depressing turnout among supporters in some areas of the central belt.
Some believed its message lacked clarity and only gained a focus when independence took more of a centre stage in the run-up to polling day, spurred on by former First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond’s interventions.
It may be easy to be wise in hindsight, people may say. Nobody could have seen that a worldwide pandemic lay ahead or that Vladimir Putin would invade Ukraine and cut off gas to the West.
But the warnings were loud and clear about how bad Brexit was going to pan out – and indeed being made by the SNP.
There was growing discontent among Tory MPs that Prime Minister Theresa May might not be best equipped to get the hard Brexit done which most of them wanted and that Boris Johnson might be the man for the job.
As the shift towards Johnson began, support for independence started to climb and politicians in Europe took notice of Scotland.
“If the Scottish people decide they want to be independent then of course we would welcome another small independent English speaking country into the European Union,” Senator Neale Richmond, an ally of the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, said in an interview when he attended the SNP conference in Glasgow in October 2018.
Yet at this point the SNP’s push for indyref2 was on hold. Closing the party’s conference, the First Minister’s message was all about the need for patience, telling her restless grass roots they needed to wait until the shape of the Brexit deal was known.
“The future relationship between the UK and the EU will determine the context in which Scotland would become independent. And so the detail of that will shape some of the answers that people want,” she said.
“But as we wait – impatiently, at times, I know – for this phase of negotiations to conclude and for the fog of Brexit to clear, be in no doubt about this. The last two years have shown why Scotland needs to be independent.”
By spring 2019, a series of opinion polls suggested momentum was with the Yes side.
Sturgeon flew to Brussels that June to be greeted by the European Commission’s president Jean-Claude Juncker and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. As Johnson became the frontrunner in the Tory leadership race, support for independence rose.
PRESSURE ON STURGEON
WITH Johnson winning the Tory contest, pressure grew further on Sturgeon to adopt a Plan B to find a way around the UK Government’s refusal to agree to a new referendum.
Yet the advocates of Plan B got short shrift from the party faithful with Chris McEleny, now the Alba Party’s general secretary, booed as he put his case to the SNP’s 2019 October conference.
“A key part of leadership is knowing when not to make a miscalculation that those in opposing parties would like you to make. That is why I will not fall into the trap that our Unionist opponents want me to, by deviating from our current path of ensuring the next independence referendum is legal and constitutional,” the First Minister had written in an article the previous Sunday.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford insisted Plan Bs were “by definition second best”.
Now, though, “second best” is embraced as the way forward. The Scottish Government has referred its plan to hold a referendum using Holyrood powers without the consent of UK ministers to the Supreme Court.
Should they rule it is not lawful the vote wouldn’t go ahead and instead the First Minister would use the next General Election as a “de facto” referendum on independence.
But isn’t this all a bit late? Surely the strategy would have had a better chance under May and Johnson than Prime Minister Liz Truss who has been adamant the best way of dealing with Sturgeon is by ignoring her?
There is no sign of the Truss Government adopting a more conciliatory stance and every one that it will advance an ultra version of “muscular Unionism”, even considering plans to block a Holyrood-held referendum approved by the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the mood in the European mainland has shifted, too. When the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen delivered her state of the union address last Wednesday, Brexit didn’t get a single mention.
The UK and its internal woes are no longer of much interest in the EU.
Instead, with war raging on European soil, the focus in the EU is on standing up to Russia while maintaining energy supply, protecting members’ economies, and on supporting the people of Ukraine.