Ian Swanson: Is Sturgeon ready to roll the dice on referendum?

Nicola Sturgeon takes the applause of SNP delegates. Picture: John Devlin

Nicola Sturgeon takes the applause of SNP delegates. Picture: John Devlin

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NICOLA Sturgeon has a reputation for being cautious – yet within minutes of opening the SNP conference last week she was fuelling expectations of a new vote on independence.

The First Minister announced publication of a referendum bill and declared her determination that Scotland should have the chance to reconsider the constitutional question “before the UK leaves the EU” if no deal could be reached on staying in the single market.

She got a standing ovation from the delegates, but with polls showing support for independence little changed since the vote in 2014, an early second referendum looks a risky strategy.

Some inside the SNP have no doubt this is the right time to try again. They point out the manifesto for the Holyrood elections set out precisely the scenario we now face – Scotland being “dragged” out of the EU against its will – as the circumstances which would justify another referendum.

They argue that the Yes campaign will start from a much higher base than last time and needs only another five per cent to get a majority. Alex Salmond said: “I hit the button for a referendum when support was 27 per cent. Why would she be reluctant on a much larger level than that?”

And some add that despite the SNP’s continuing lead in the polls the party is likely to lose ground at the next Holyrood elections in 2021 and so should make the most of its current position.

However, others are much less gung-ho. Edinburgh delegate Alex Orr told the conference: “The next independence referendum must be one that we are confident we can win or the issue will be off the agenda for decades.”

And even if Ms Sturgeon is ready to risk it – and she has not committed – the timing of a referendum is still tricky. The aim would be to have it ahead of Brexit so Scotland could have some chance of remaining a member of the EU rather than leaving with the rest of the UK and then having to apply to get back in.

With Article 50 due to be triggered by March next year and Brexit expected in spring 2019, that is quite a tight timetable. But leading Brussels-watcher Kirsty Hughes has warned it is even tighter than it seems. She says if the independence process takes 18 months, in order to achieve a relatively seamless transition, the referendum would have to take place by this time next year.

And SNP MP Kirsty Blackman told a fringe meeting at the conference she did not see how the timetable could work. “I can’t see a way in which we can have an independence referendum and then conclude negotiations with the EU within two-and-a-half years from today. It would be nice, but I don’t think it will happen.”

The SNP also faces a problem in linking a new referendum and the case for independence too closely to Brexit. Apart from the lack of a surge in support for independence after the EU vote, the party also has to accept about a third of its own supporters voted Leave. They are not necessarily going to show the same enthusiasm for independence if it means opting back into the EU.

So will Ms Sturgeon go for it or hold back? Her first priority, as she made clear at conference, is to try to keep Scotland in the single market – and she has promised specific proposals in the next few weeks. The prospect of a second referendum helps focus minds on both sides.

But calling one while the polls show no sign of a significant move in favour of independence would be a gamble.