When does no mean no? The resounding ‘No’ that Scots said to independence in 2014, was this week swiped away as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she wants to call a second referendum on independence by Spring 2019.
For a pair of canny operators, the move by Sturgeon was bold, and caught the Prime Minister on the back foot. Timing in politics is everything, and Sturgeon’s declaration clearly took the Prime Minister by surprise, as Theresa May took two whole days to formulate little more than a holding response arguing that now was not the time. Not a ‘no’, but not a ‘never’.
By triggering the start of a referendum campaign now, the SNP are themselves taking a gamble. Already we have heard the lines of the “undemocratic” nature of Westminster Conservatives denying Scotland a vote, but the calling of this referendum was also a handy distraction for the Nationalists. In power for a decade at Holyrood, the SNP’s own record on health and education had been coming under increasing pressure, and Sturgeon’s own ratings had slipped behind that of the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. However, with the Conservatives looking set to govern for the next decade from Westminster, with little representation in Scotland, expect to see much more of the “undemocratic” argument rolled out by the Nationalists, and the SNP’s well oiled grievance machine hard at work.
There is as much that unites May and Sturgeon as divides them. Both lead parties that are breathing down their necks – for different reasons. Whilst May is battling to keep the Brexiteering Tories on side in her negotiations for leaving the EU, Sturgeon’s grassroots membership cannot wait to have their second bite at an independence referendum. And handily for both, Labour do not figure this time. Wiped from Scotland and irrelevant at Westminster, the absence of the Party will be a boon for both Nationalists’ fight for Scottish Independence and the Conservative’s continued dominance at Westminster.
By 2018, the SNP will have been in office at Holyrood for well over a decade, and Mrs May will have had two hard years of trying to heed Brexiteering backbencher’s wishes. At the end of this wrangling, only one of them will be left standing. Not in the timeframe Sturgeon seeks, but at some point there will be a second Scottish independence referendum. But the fight to the finish will be a slog, and whether Britain as a country is left standing, or not, will be the real prize for either politician.