Much like 2017, Scottish politics in 2018 is likely to be shaped primarily by two big issues: the terms of Brexit and its consequences for IndyRef2.
The critical next phase of the UK’s negotiations with Brussels are set to begin in February, as the Scottish parties are preparing for their spring conferences.
The big question of 2018, of course, is whether Ms Sturgeon will decide to press ahead with IndyRef2 The SNP’s gathering, due to be held in the second half of March, is likely to provide the next significant insight into Nicola Sturgeon’s thinking on when she might call another referendum on independence.
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However, given the electoral bloody nose the party received at the snap general election in 2017, the First Minister may want to keep her powder dry until much later in the year. October 2018 is when the EU negotiating team expects a formal Brexit transition deal to be reached: only then will Ms Sturgeon’s hand become clear, providing a possible IndyRef2 trigger.
During the year it is likely that the Scottish Government and the UK will finally do a deal on the EU Withdrawal Bill, which will repatriate thousands of EU laws back to Britain. If Holyrood gives its consent to the Bill, all the talk will be of a constitutional crisis averted. But while such an agreement currently seems more likely than not, it could still fall apart. If talks end in stalemate and Holyrood refuses to give its consent, the UK Government could technically overrule the decision – but this would be unprecedented and would spark a major row.
The big question of 2018, of course, is whether Ms Sturgeon will decide to press ahead with IndyRef2 – and whether the UK will give its permission for another vote. If it does happen, it is likely to be during the two-year Brexit transition period, which begins in March 2019.
The SNP’s mandate for another vote lasts until the next Scottish election in 2021.
One other big political set-piece is due to take place in the opening months of 2018: the publication of the SNP’s Growth Commission report into the finances of an independent Scotland. Designed to lay the groundwork for another vote, it will make a series of crucial recommendations about the currency the country might use and how it might grow its economy. Reports suggest that the document runs to more than 100 pages and is divided into three sections, with one dedicated to fiscal policy, a second to economic growth and a third to currency. The report will no doubt generate a storm of negative reaction from the Scottish Conservatives and other pro-Union parties, who will accuse the First Minister of obsessing over independence. But Ms Sturgeon will be hoping that as time passes, it can be used to re-frame the debate around Scotland’s future and address some of the weaknesses of the 2014 campaign. One other political talking point will be the continuing debate around the SNP’s record in government, particularly in the critical areas of education and health. The party has done remarkably well to remain ahead in the polls after 10 years in charge, but only time – and of course the opinion polls – will tell if voters believe the gloss is starting to come off.