Brian Monteith: Sturgeon gets cold feet

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The chances of a second referendum are now receding as reality dawns on Nicola Sturgeon that the possibility of winning has diminished and shows little sign of changing. The prospects could all change, of course; there are rarely any certainties in politics.

Speaking to the media in countless interviews and at her own party’s conference, Sturgeon has made it plain that there needs to be popular demand for independence first.

Gone is her bravado of the past year about how a second referendum was still on her agenda and could be “triggered” by various events despite the economic evidence showing that business investment in Scotland fell during the period before the vote and that businesses still feel nervous about the possibilities of a second referendum.

Never mind the fact that she, like Alex Salmond, had said the last vote was a “once in a lifetime opportunity”. That sentiment was quickly ditched in an effort to buoy up supporters who needed something to hope for, something to cling on to.

The difficulty for the First Minister is that she now has to manage expectations, and if she is not careful and overreaches herself by geeing Nationalists up to fever pitch and then does not deliver, the fallout from members and elected politicians will eventually cost her the leadership. That looks a far-off prospect at the moment. The SNP discipline remains generally strong and members seem content to wait on Sturgeon choosing the right moment to mobilise them again.

So, it is with the management of expectations in mind that she has started to suggest all sorts of caveats about what would give her the grounds to press for a second referendum.

Let’s remember that the first referendum came about because of a blurted-out promise made by Salmond under pressure in a radio interview. He never thought he would have the overall majority that would require him to go ahead with the commitment, but his bluff and bluster was caught out. He got the overall majority to his and everyone else’s surprise and the media and opposing politicians forced his hand.

So it is interesting – and shows the level of caution in the SNP’s planning – that the First Minister is saying that even another overall majority will not constitute a trigger for a second referendum. Why, if it was good enough before, is it not good enough now? Sturgeon says what is required is “clear and consistent” evidence that there is a majority of the electorate in favour of independence. That’s right, a majority in favour of independence, not just a majority in favour of a referendum.

Although she has not been pressed on the detail, it would be fair to assume that by “clear and consistent” she is referring to polling evidence. “Clear” suggests it could not be one company’s polling but would be demonstrated across the range from YouGov, Survation, ICM and so on. And “consistent” suggests repeated polls, over a period of months, maybe even a year or more – not a rogue poll, like there was before the last referendum.

The First Minister’s caution will naturally disappoint many of the new members that joined the SNP in the weeks after the last vote, but being honest with her supporters is the smart thing to do – they want to win power as well as independence, for without power there will be no referendum. Sturgeon’s explanation that the timing has to be right is about trying to win – so they will back her for now.

Even the idea that the UK voting to leave the European Union but Scotland voting to stay in has been demoted as a trigger for an independence referendum – that too would still have to pass the “clear and consistent” evidence hurdle, and it is by no means certain one would follow the other. The EU debate has never really taken off in Scotland but when it does I fully expect the gap between those advocating “remain” and “leave” to narrow.

For a start, the launch of a Scottish campaign for leaving the EU – which will no doubt seek to involve Nationalists – will begin to be heard where previously that issue has been crowded out. Also, a recent YouGov poll found that 27 per cent of SNP supporters backed leaving the EU, a figure that I would expect to rise once SNP politicians like Jim Sillars become standard bearers for an exit. I’ve no doubt that poll has been brought to the First Minister’s attention and she will be wary that a close vote in Scotland, say 55 per cent-45 per cent to stay in, might not guarantee enough unhappiness for Scots to then vote for independence from the UK.

After all, why seek independence from Britain only to become the vassal of Brussels? Why pay more for EU membership and have no chance of winning the opt-outs that the UK currently enjoys? Sturgeon’s caveat that there would still need to be “clear and consistent” evidence of a desire for independence, even if there is Brexit, puts paid to the theory that Scotland voting to stay in the EU while the UK votes to leave must break up the country.

Thanks, Nicola, for all this clarification. I’ll be holding you to it.

Brian Monteith is director of ThinkScotland.org