Ian Swanson: Sheppard’s roadmap cuts through woolly thinking

Tommy Sheppard says the SNP must seek a new mandate for an independence referendum at the 2021 election. Picture: Neil Hanna
Tommy Sheppard says the SNP must seek a new mandate for an independence referendum at the 2021 election. Picture: Neil Hanna
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THREE years ago, Scotland was nearing the climax of the independence referendum, the polls were narrowing and Alex Salmond claimed independence was “closer than it has ever been”.

Since then, the country has been on a political roller coaster: the 55-45 vote to remain part of the UK sparked a surge in support for the SNP and the independence cause; the 2015 general election saw the party win all but three of Scotland’s Westminster seats; the shock Brexit result seemed to offer the opportunity for a fresh independence vote; but then the SNP lost seats at the surprise 2017 general election, many to the Tories.

Now Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for another referendum have been put on the backburner, but the SNP has not given up on its quest.

And last week Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard set out how he believes the Yes movement can win next time.

He says no new referendum should take place until after the 2021 Holyrood elections.

Given the mixed views among SNP supporters over Brexit, he would rather not tie the independence question to Scotland’s future relationship with the EU. Instead, he argues, the SNP should seek a “new, clear and unconditional” mandate for another referendum at the 2021 election.

And to those who see that as too risky in case the pro-independence parties are no longer in a majority and therefore cannot call a referendum, he says: “There is no shortcut to this – if there are not the numbers to elect an independence-supporting Scottish Government, then there ain’t the numbers to win a referendum in any event.”

The pause in the referendum timetable gives campaigners the chance to build a new case for an independent Scotland and try to come up with convincing answers to the questions which voters felt were not satisfactorily answered last time, not least the currency.

Mr Sheppard argues that Brexit makes it unlikely an independent Scotlland aspiring to be part of a European single market could be part of a sterling zone and so the future lies with an independent Scottish currency backed by a new central bank. In terms of Scotland’s relations with the EU he says it should not be a question of “membership at all costs” and suggests it could be “a hybrid relationship such as that enjoyed by Norway”.

Mr Sheppard highlights other priorities, including progressive taxation and universal public services and insists Scotland could afford it.

But so much has changed since the last referendum, the SNP and its Yes allies probably face a tougher task in persuading people of their case than they did in 2014.

The warnings about the future of oil and gas cause anxieties about the country’s economic prospects.

And the surge in support for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn means it no longer seems so certain that the UK faces permanent Tory rule – a key factor for many Scots.

With research showing younger voters more inclined to support independence than older people, the long-term demographics are on the side of the SNP.

But in the meantime Ms Sturgeon will have to be very cautious about calling a new referendum, whether it’s before or after that 2021 Scottish Parliament election.