SNP independence strategy: Conference decision hardly matters - no UK party will agree to a second referendum
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If things had gone according to Nicola Sturgeon's plan, Scots would have been heading to the polls this Thursday to decide the country's future in a second independence referendum, just over nine years after the first one produced a much closer result than originally expected.
It was June 2022 when Ms Sturgeon named October 19, 2023, as the date for Indyref 2. But even at the time it didn't seem all that likely to happen. The then Fist Minister also announced the issue of whether a referendum called by Holyrood would be lawful was being referred to the Supreme Court – and if the court said no, the next general election would become a de facto referendum on independence.
Predictably, the court did say no. But Ms Sturgeon is no longer at the helm and now the SNP has officially abandoned the de facto referendum plan after a debate at its conference in Aberdeen on the party's strategy for independence. The notion of treating an election as a referendum came under fire as soon as Ms Sturgeon proposed it and she recognised it was controversial within the party as well as outside, even including the need for the party to have an open discussion on it among her reasons for stepping down when she did.
Instead, the conference has agreed a strategy which says if the SNP wins a majority of Scottish seats at the next UK general election – which it will fight on a manifesto boldly declaring on line one "Vote SNP for Scotland to become an independent country" – that would be a mandate for the Scottish Government to open talks with the UK government on a referendum.
With Scotland's quota of Westminster seats set to fall to 57, that would mean the SNP needs to win just 29 seats – compared with the 48 it won last time – to demand a fresh vote on independence. However logical that might be, it will be difficult to persuade people that losing seats – which is what the polls predict – should be the trigger for a ballot on constitutional change.
But in truth it hardly matters what strategy the SNP adopts on independence at the moment. It is clear that, whoever wins the general election, neither the Conservatives nor Labour will agree to a second referendum. There is already a mandate for a referendum from a majority of pro-independence MSPs being elected to Holyrood, but the UK government has repeatedly refused to grant the Section 30 order needed to allow a referendum to take place. And the Supreme Court ruling means the Scottish Parliament cannot call one itself, meaning there is currently no route to a referendum.
And although the polls show opinion in Scotland seems to have settled at somewhere around a 50-50 split over independence, the SNP really needs there to be a clear lead for Yes before it’s worth putting the question again. Losing a second time would be a huge setback.
In the end, it all comes down to what both Nicola Sturgeon and her successor Humza Yousaf have acknowledged – the SNP needs to persuade more people of the case for independence and create a clear majority in favour. As Mr Yousaf repeated at the conference: there are no short-cuts to independence.