Ian Swanson: Sturgeon presses reset button on Indyref dream

Nicola Sturgeon makes her announcement at Holyrood. Picture: PA
Nicola Sturgeon makes her announcement at Holyrood. Picture: PA
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NICOLA Sturgeon was never going to ditch her plans for another independence referendum altogether. That would have been asking the First Minister to surrender any chance of securing her top political objective.

But faced with a disappointing general election result, where the party lost 21 of the 56 seats it won just two years ago, and little evidence of any increase in support for independence, it would have been folly to stick stubbornly to the timetable she outlined at Bute House on March 13, calling for a fresh vote between autumn next year and the conclusion of Brexit negotiations in spring 2019.

Instead Ms Sturgeon announced to MSPs yesterday she would “reset” her plans, drop any attempt to pass immediate legislation for a new referendum, focus on trying to influence the Brexit talks to protect Scotland’s interests and come back to the issue of Indyref2 next autumn.

Opposition politicians accused her of not listening to the voters. And since her new timetable leaves open the possibility of a second referendum being actively on the agenda again in less than 18 months it does allow them to keep the issue alive as a stick with which to beat the Nationalists.

But Ms Sturgeon’s statement seemed a reasonable attempt to balance her party’s ambitions with the realities of the current political situation.

Ms Sturgeon has seized on the weakness of the UK Government following its failure to win a landslide in the general election as an opportunity to stop a hard Brexit – and she is promising to push once again the plan published last December to stay in the single market and secure substantial new powers for the Scottish Parliament.

The First Minister and her colleagues expected the result of last year’s EU referendum, where Scots voted the opposite way to England, to provoke a surge of support for independence. That was the anticipated reaction the SNP built its manifesto pledge about a new referendum on – but it didn’t happen.

Ms Sturgeon’s March 13 announcement that she would seek powers from Westminster to hold Indyref2 once the details of Brexit were known took most people by surprise and was quickly rebuffed by Theresa May.

Nevertheless, Ms Sturgeon said yesterday that as the implications of Brexit become clearer she believes people will increasingly demand a choice about Scotland’s future.

But, significantly, she also argued that “the case for an independent Scotland is not just about Brexit – it goes far beyond that” and she promised a new effort to persuade people that independence is “the right and the best answer to the many, complex challenges we face as a country”.

She has previously acknowledged the need to come up with better answers to some of the questions people were most worried about in the 2014 referendum. The SNP does indeed need to be clear about what would happen under independence on matters like currency, pensions – and EU membership too.

Many Yes activists would hold a new referendum tomorrow and may be impatient with the First Minister for delaying the dream.

But whatever the arguments about timetables, the impact of Brexit or the wider case for independence, Ms Sturgeon is not going to call a referendum unless she thinks she will win.