Ian Swanson: Sturgeon can’t let the dust settle for too long

Nicola Sturgeon applauds a speaker at the SNP conference. Picture: PA
Nicola Sturgeon applauds a speaker at the SNP conference. Picture: PA
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NICOLA Sturgeon says the case for independence has never been greater. The looming “car crash” of Brexit makes the idea of Scotland being in control of its own destiny more appealing than ever, she argues.

Yet she has already had to row back from the dramatic announcement she made back in March about holding a second independence referendum between autumn next year and spring 2019, when the UK is due to leave the European Union. She had wanted Scots to have another say “before it is too late to choose our own course”.

Now she says it would be premature to fix a date for Indyref2 and wants to “let the dust settle”. And some leading SNP figures believe a fresh referendum should be postponed until after the next Holyrood elections in 2021.

The crucial factor that forced the change of position was, of course, the general election in June when the SNP lost 21 of the 56 seats it had won just two years earlier.

Ms Sturgeon has acknowledged the prospect of a new vote on independence was one of the reasons people switched their support away from the SNP.

Her predecessor Alex Salmond has argued Ms Sturgeon’s plan for a second referendum would have succeeded if it had not been for Theresa May’s fateful decision to go for an early election. The dash to the polls gave the SNP no time to build up the case for independence as the best alternative to a hard Brexit.

But the former First Minister remained optimistic in the long term, insisting: “Indyref 2 will come right because Brexit will go wrong.”

Despite the general election blow, which included Mr Salmond losing his seat, the SNP remains 17 points ahead of its nearest rival in the polls – and that’s after ten years in government.

Ms Sturgeon and her colleagues responded to calls for them to concentrate on the “day job” with a busy programme for government.

But projections do suggest the 2021 Scottish Parliament election could see the current pro-independence majority at Holyrood disappear, with both the SNP and the Greens predicted to lose seats, adding to the pressure for another vote on independence sooner rather than later. The matter of a second referendum is not on the agenda at the SNP conference in Glasgow, but obviously independence is never very far from the thoughts of SNP activists or leaders.

Announcing the “reset” of the referendum timetable in June, Ms Sturgeon promised to use the delay to persuade voters of the wider case for independence. “We have not done that yet, but I have no doubt that we can,” she added.

It is now more than three years since the referendum. The SNP and its allies in the Yes campaign did an impressive job in increasing support from around 30 per cent to 45 per cent by the big day.

But there were still key questions which voters felt had not been satisfactorily answered – on issues like the currency, pensions and – perhaps ironically – Scotland’s future in the EU.

Whenever another vote might be held, the SNP needs to set out its case for independence as clearly and convincingly as possible, taking seriously the criticisms that have been made of it and being realistic about what it would mean. Ms Sturgeon needs to get on and do that now.

ian.swanson@jpress.co.uk