Ian Swanson: Will Nicola be forced to play the waiting game?

Nicola Sturgeon wants Scotland to stay in the EU. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Nicola Sturgeon wants Scotland to stay in the EU. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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THE SNP will have a better chance of winning a fresh referendum on independence if it waits until after agreement is reached on the UK’s Brexit deal, according to senior Nationalist Alex Neil.

The former Scottish Cabinet minister warned against a “premature” referendum which the Yes side might lose.

And he pointed out that with a tight 18-month deadline for the Brexit talks, recently set by EU chief negotiator Michael Barnier, it would be difficult to organise an independence vote within that timescale anyway.

Mr Neil’s comments appear at odds with those of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has talked of Scots being given the chance to consider independence “before the UK leaves the EU” if that looks like the best or only way to protect the country’s interests. The timing is important because it is seen as easier for Scotland just to continue as an EU member rather than leave and apply to rejoin.

But does Mr Neil’s intervention undermine the First Minister’s stance or is he just spelling out a realistic, commonsense position which Ms Sturgeon will inevitably find herself having to accept as events unfold?

Mr Neil revealed last month that he had voted Leave, despite the party’s strong official support for Remain.

And it seems clear now that the SNP leadership seriously underestimated the strength of the pro-Brexit feelings among its supporters.

Latest research found 36 per cent of SNP voters backed Leave – the same proportion as among Labour voters.

That has meant that, despite the undoubted fact that some who voted No in the September 2014 independence referendum have become Yes supporters because of their dismay at the Brexit vote, there has been no significant increase in support for independence since June 23. Indeed, one recent poll showed it dipping by one per cent from the 2014 level of 45 per cent.

Without the surge she had hoped for, Ms Sturgeon is in no rush to call a new referendum. But Scotland’s 62 per cent backing for Remain still gives her a strong mandate to push for a continued relationship between Scotland and the EU whatever happens at UK level. And that is difficult to achieve unless you are an independent state. It looks like stalemate.

So will Scottish opinion change once the shape of the UK’s Brexit deal and the consequences of leaving the EU begin to emerge?

The forecast this week from the Fraser of Allander Institute painted a bleak picture of life after Brexit – rising inflation, limited employment and earnings growth, and a freezing of many in-work benefits.

But it may be that voters fear there will be hard times ahead whichever path is chosen, so it is difficult to know whether the looming reality of a UK adrift from the EU will be enough to make anyone feel differently about independence.

Nevertheless, Mr Neil’s argument is that better knowledge of what we face would help. “You cannot realistically maximise your chances of winning a referendum for independence unless and until you know what the final Brexit deal is,” he says.

He also wants any new independence referendum to cover the EU too, asking voters whether they would want an independent Scotland to apply to rejoin the EU.

Two referendums for the price of one, with all options open, might sound a bargain – but it could lead to some complicated campaigning and perhaps a result few of the politicians want to see.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com