Indyref2: What's the next move?

Nicola Sturgeon Image copyright AFP Getty

What to do, eh? What to do? What is the strategy for the first minister to pursue now that the prime minister has said "don't call us, we may call you", with regard to proposals for a referendum on independence.

It would appear evident that there are two related but distinct issues pertinent here:

  • One, should there be a referendum at some as yet unspecified date?
  • Two, should there be talks now in order to prepare for that referendum?

Right now, Nicola Sturgeon's focus is upon point two in order to facilitate point one. Right now, Theresa May is offering a soft maybe to the notion of a future referendum. But she is resolutely against preparatory talks of any kind, arguing that the focus must be upon Brexit negotiations.

That means she will not talk about dates. She will not talk about the Section 30 transfer of powers to Holyrood. She wants a period of silence on the subject.

If and when that changes, she wants to be able to take the initiative by deferring any talk of a referendum until after Brexit is concluded - and has settled down, if such a scenario can be envisaged.

So, again, what to do? What does Nicola Sturgeon do? Firstly, she invites the Scottish Parliament to carry a resolution next Wednesday demanding that Section 30 transfer.

Ms Sturgeon believes that gives formal backing to her request, outlined on Monday. She believes it will alter the tone and timbre of the debate, adding to the pressure upon the PM.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Theresa May used a speech in Cardiff to accuse the SNP of being "divisive and obsessive" over independence

But what if the PM says no - or, even, says nothing at all, following the tactic of discretionary silence which she pursued in the early weeks of Brexit preparation when she refused for a spell to give a "running commentary"?

What then? Might Nicola Sturgeon hold an unofficial, advisory referendum on independence? One which would lack formal sanction?

She declines to rule this out. But, then, in uncertain circumstances, sensible political leaders - and Ms Sturgeon is eminently sensible - tend to leave all options open.

I do not believe that the first minister is attracted to the idea of a non-consensual referendum. I believe she would see it as gesture politics, not the actions of a long-standing elected government. I believe further she would question what it would achieve, given that it might face a boycott from supporters of the Union.

So might she engineer an early Holyrood election? Might she seek an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament in order, presumably, to bring the Prime Minister to the negotiating table?

She might. It is feasible. But, again, I think it is highly unlikely.

Broadly, there are three objections:

  • One, folk tend to hate unnecessary elections.
  • Two, it might go wrong for the SNP. One can never be sure with polling in unusual circumstances - and a proportional electoral system.
  • Three - and this is the main one. The SNP's demand for a referendum is predicated upon a line in their manifesto to the effect that they reserved the right to hold a further plebiscite in the event that the people of Scotland were taken out of the EU against their declared will.

In short, the SNP insist they already have a mandate. It is, indeed, a fundamental element in their pitch to the prime minister. Arguably, it might weaken that case if they were prevailed upon to seek a further endorsement from the electorate.

So, instead, I would expect the first minister to pursue the PM via strategic pressure, at both Holyrood and Westminster, linked to party campaigning.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Delegates at the SNP's spring conference appeared eager for an early referendum but is it a view shared among the wider electorate?

Talking of the party, the SNP has of course sampled opinion via focus groups and others methods. That sampling discloses that there are, indeed, voters - including supporters of independence - who are leery about the notion of a relatively early referendum.

But, as Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly says, she does not want a referendum now. Her timetable is Autumn 2018 to Spring 2019, with perhaps a little leeway beyond that.

Party strategists say that those who are unsure about a referendum tend to change their mind when it is drawn to their attention that the choice might arise when Brexit terms are known. Then, they can apparently be persuaded to tolerate a plebiscite. In fact, some are enthusiastic.

Scotland's political story is "an auld sang". We are currently adding a few more verses.

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