During the EU referendum campaign, the then Justice Secretary Michael Gove claimed that a vote to leave the EU would make the Union between nations of the United Kingdom stronger than ever. Being an establishment politician and former Times journalist, one would have expected Gove to be an expert on such things, and therefore we would all be okay. Though then there was also a prominent Leave campaigner who said that people “have had enough of experts”. Wait, that was Michael Gove as well, maybe he was right. In any case, Nicola Sturgeon has decided that the threat of leaving the EU represents enough of a political shift to fulfil the SNP’s manifesto promise to trigger another Independence vote should such an eventuality arise.
Sturgeon has the majority to trigger a referendum in the Scottish parliament (through a vote to enact something called Section 30), given the Green Party also support independence. However, it will then be up to Theresa May to acquiesce Holyrood’s request, and she will no doubt be far more likely to block a vote than her predecessor. The case for blocking a vote is fairly straight forward, the last referendum was 2014, only four or five years before Sturgeon’s proposed second vote, and in 2014 it was considered “once in a generation” (Salmond, Alex). May would face a severe backlash should she block a decision, but it wouldn’t lose her much political capital given the Tory vote in Scotland is almost entirely a Unionist vote, and they only have one MP in Scotland anyway.
There is the possibility that Sturgeon has proposed this while expecting May to block it. This would allow both sides to punt the issue down the road for the foreseeable future. Such an eventuality would secure Sturgeon’s already herculean position of strength, given that May and the Conservatives in Westminster become a scapegoat. Meanwhile, May (for reasons outlined above) doesn’t have to worry about getting over any hurdles other than the EU negotiations before she wins the 2020 election. The third option would be that May either tells Sturgeon the vote cannot take place until after the Article 50 negotiations have played out in 2019, or sets a bar for the SNP to jump over (some have suggested the SNP winning an outright majority in the next Scottish Parliament elections).
This paints a picture that is far closer to a Picasso than a Rembrandt. Sturgeon has outlined that any new referendum would likely feature a similar question to before, with Yes and No options, and has suggested the poll would be held in late 2018 or early 2019, though as outlined above that may not be her call. Aside from that, it may be a very different campaign to last time. Obviously, the main players from the last campaign have now left the stage. Alex Salmond is down in Westminster, Alistair Darling has resumed his comfortable retirement and David Cameron has started his.
The leader of the hypothetical Yes camp is obvious, Sturgeon will fill the role of her predecessor, and no doubt do so with aplomb. The SNP have been extremely fortunate to have had two of the most talented politicians of their generation lead the party, the sheer fact that Sturgeon has managed to create a plausible case for this referendum is testament to her ability and nous. On the other side; whither the Unionists? There is no chance May could lead the No side, she already has a busy enough schedule as it is, plus her newfound zealotry in terms of EU negotiations has removed any credibility the “it’s not in your national interest” argument might have had. Likely there would be an expanded role for Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson, who has herself proved a politician of formidable ability, maybe the only leader in the country who can match Sturgeon tit-for-tat, but she hardly would appeal to the marginal voters in any hypothetical vote.
Kezia Dugdale, the leader of Labour in Scotland, could fill that void, were it not for the fact she will likely have to campaign with the anchor of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership dragging her down. Contrary to what so many of his supporters claimed during the Labour leadership contest Corbyn has not won back votes in Scotland, rather the party has gone backward under his leadership. A hypothetical No campaign could again turn to a respected statesman of Scottish politics, who also spoke out strongly for Remain in the EU referendum (Gordon Brown?). However, the SNP are in an even stronger position now than at the last independence vote, having wiped out all other parties at a UK level in the 2015 General Election.
The real question is over the main arguments. As noted above, the vote to leave the EU has torched many of the No camps’ best arguments from the last campaign. The Yes campaign were often criticised for not being able to elucidate a clear future for Scotland after Independence, but that loses significant potency if the No campaign has no clear argument about what a united UK’s future would look like. Some arguments from the last campaign could be revived, the SNP would still have to answer the question as to what currency would be used post-Independence, and how Scotland would adapt its governance and spending to a newfound sovereignty.
Similarly, a No campaign would likely push hard the line that an Independent Scotland would not just waltz back into the EU ball. There is still the Spanish question, whether Madrid would accede to a Scottish membership bid, though this looks more likely now than in 2014. This uncertainty could be teamed with the argument that Scotland leaving because of an EU exit which requires the UK resorting to WTO tariffs, would affect Scotland far more negatively if it were outside the EU as well, given UK remains Scotland’s largest trading partner (though, again, torpedoing your economic future is in vogue right now).
All this adds up to a far more complicated campaign if May does decide to let Sturgeon seize the initiative though, given May’s dismissal of a proposed second vote as “divisive”, that remains entirely up in the air. What does appear apparent, however, is that at this point the SNP appear to be on a far stronger footing for any potential second vote. They can build on the momentum of the 2014 poll, and are facing an opposition weakened by the EU vote (and potentially continuing to weaken itself given the direction the EU negotiations are headed). For Nicola Sturgeon, the perfect storm may be gathering.