Ian Swanson: SNP just cannot escape independence issue

Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: John Devlin
Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: John Devlin
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NICOLA Sturgeon has to manage expectations from her supporters and be realistic about another referendum, says Ian Swanson

NICOLA Sturgeon says it is “very highly likely” that a vote for the UK to leave the European Union would lead to a second referendum on whether Scotland should become independent. But, crucially, she adds that she will “judge the circumstances at the time”.

The simple truth is there will not be another independence referendum until the SNP is confident it will win it.

And a poll at the weekend showed that despite Scotland’s much stronger support for remaining in the EU, a Brexit vote would only increase a Yes vote on independence from 47 per cent to 50 per cent – not the decisive change of view Ms Sturgeon is looking for.

There were plenty of enthusiastic independence supporters in the immediate wake of the 2014 vote who would have welcomed another referendum almost straight away, eager to capitalise on the extraordinary mood of the moment.

Ms Sturgeon has taken a more realistic, sober approach and has promised an initiative in the summer to try to convince the public of the merits of independence. She has also acknowledged the need rethink some of the answers the Yes campaign gave to key questions and come up with more persuasive arguments on the big issues.

That could include the whole issue of what currency an independent Scotland would use, clarifying the relationship with the EU and how an independent Scotland would cope economically if oil prices remain low.

And the SNP manifesto for this election stops well short of promising a second referendum, arguing instead that “the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people – or if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will”.

It is said that the “clear and sustained evidence” required is 60 per cent Yes support in the polls for at least six months or even a year.

The left-wing alliance Rise (Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism) – which includes many of the more radical Yes campaigners from the referendum – is dismayed that the SNP manifesto does not seek a clear mandate to hold a new vote.

Opposition parties say people want to move on from the independence debate and to focus on the new powers Holyrood is about to get over tax and welfare.

That is undoubtedly true for many voters. But the question of independence nevertheless remains the inescapable backdrop for Scottish political debate. Everyone knows that despite the apparently clear 55-45 victory of the No camp, the referendum gave the SNP an unprecedented boost and supporters of independence are not giving up.

That leaves the SNP with the problem of managing the expectations of supporters and making sure it is not bounced into calling another referendum it could lose.

It is easy to deride the SNP’s position as trying to decide Scotland’s future by opinion poll. But, in reality, it would be a waste of everyone’s time and self-destructive for the SNP to hold another independence vote unless there was clear evidence of a change of heart among voters.

And, equally, if there is a decisive shift of opinion in favour of a break from the rest of the UK, it is difficult in a democracy to argue that should be ignored.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com