Scottish independence: Nicola Sturgeon's plan to turn general election into a referendum is impossible – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

I hope this is the last I have to write about this dreadful subject for a long while, but the announcement of the First Minister’s pathway to a second divisive referendum on breaking up the UK demands a reply.

Politicians cannot simply decide a national election will be held on one issue alone (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Politicians cannot simply decide a national election will be held on one issue alone (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Coming in a week when waits for cancer care topped all previous records, there was a grim poetry in just how tone deaf that announcement was.

In truth, there are warning lights blinking across the dashboard of public policy in Scotland, in large part compounded by the disinterest of ministers wholly fixated on partition from England.

Healthcare waits, a widening educational attainment gap, a profound lack of support for long Covid sufferers, the world’s worst drug-death rate, these are all issues crying out for parliamentary attention, but we are destined to spend the next months indulging Scotland’s nationalist movement.

So, what happens next? Well, the chances of a referendum in October 2023 being legally sanctioned by UK Government or Supreme Court are vanishingly small so Nicola Sturgeon has signalled the next general election will take its place. The SNP will fight that election on a one-line manifesto that Scotland should leave the UK.

Something tells me this wasn’t properly thought through. It’s clear the SNP’s junior partners, the Green party, weren’t told of the plan. Last week saw them desperately scrabble for a position, until Patrick Harvie confirmed the Greens would also fight for that election on the single issue of independence.

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We are through the looking glass now. That a Green party should fight an election and not mention the environment is bonkers. The threat to our planet is existential, if the Greens won’t put the climate emergency front and centre of that campaign, the Scottish Liberal Democrats will.

Then we had the spectacle of Deputy First Minister John Swinney bungling the interpretation of his boss's policy announcement. For half a day last week, the SNP had two separate policy positions, when he seemed to suggest that if the SNP won the majority of MPs (which you could do with 35 per cent of the vote) that would be enough to unilaterally declare independence. He then had to clarify that, of course, he meant a mandate would only be achieved by over 50 per cent of the vote.

This isn’t as elegant a solution as it seems, as academics and commentators were quick to point out. It is impossible to make a national election about just one issue and be sure everyone who votes for a party did so on just that basis. Nicola Sturgeon and Ian Blackford aren’t just going to be asked one question in the leader’s debates. They’ll be asked about tax and defence, pensions and foreign policy.

Elections set the course of the entire country for the next five years. As we have seen in recent times, nobody has the power to fully control how they unfold. Just ask Theresa May, who went in to the 2017 election looking unassailable and emerged fatally weakened.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats won’t play this game. We’ll fight the coming election with solutions to the various crises our country faces. For all the problems experienced by Scots right now, the answer to none of them is another vote on separation.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western