10 May 2021

Nicola Sturgeon awaits the longest tightrope walk of her career


We have been here before. The most remarkable thing about the 2021 Scottish Parliament election results is their similarity to the outcome of the last contest in 2016. That was when Nicola Sturgeon lost the overall majority bequeathed to her by her predecessor, Alex Salmond, whose success at the polls in 2011 Sturgeon has tried twice – and failed twice – to emulate.

Five years ago the SNP swept all before it but failed to secure a majority, winning 63 out of 129 seats. But the always helpful Greens were on hand to push the pro-independence bloc over the lines; they may have “Green” in their title but concerns about climate change come a very poor third behind the party’s true priorities: Scottish independence and trans rights.

In other words, in terms of the political situation, Scotland finds itself in is no different in substance to that of 2016. At that time, Sturgeon had no immediate plans to call for another referendum (although she always would have at some point) but the EU referendum a month later gave her the excuse she wanted to start rattling her sabres.

In March 2018 a majority of MSPs – SNP plus the Greens – duly voted to hold that much desired second independence referendum. In most countries, democratic mandates are given to elected politicians by voters; in Scotland, the politicians, when needs demand, construct their own. And so it was that Holyrood “mandated” the Scottish Government to seek what is called a Section 30 Order under the Scotland Act, which would have the effect of transferring to Edinburgh the legal authority to hold such a referendum.

And then, something that Nicola Sturgeon would today describe as “absurd and completely outrageous” happened: the prime minister said no. Across Scotland journalists reached for the smelling salts. “But…but… what about the mandate?”

The prime minister in question at the time was Theresa May, but Sturgeon, it turned out, had no greater luck with her successor, Boris Johnson. This knocked the SNP for six. Ever since the party moved into government in 2007, it had got used to Westminster doing precisely what the nationalists told it to do, tearing up the original devolution settlement and  transferring lots of shiny new powers to Holyrood, even granting the power to hold that elusive referendum in 2014.

That Sturgeon would demand another vote on independence as soon as possible was never in any doubt, her earlier campaign promises of a “once in a lifetime opportunity” notwithstanding. Had the UK not voted to leave the EU, she would have come up with some other excuse – she herself publicly speculated that the renewal of Trident or continuing “Tory” austerity would provide handy triggers.

But she settled on Brexit and the mandate she claims to have received from voters last week gives her the authority to put it to another vote. One tiny, teensy wee problem with that: the constitution is explicitly reserved to Westminster by the Scotland Act; this is why Westminster had to grant permission the last time. Sturgeon was right there when that application was made – doesn’t she remember?

Nevertheless, she has a mandate, just not a mandate to hold a referendum. Her mandate obliges her to apply to the UK government for that Section 30 Order, but it doesn’t oblige Johnson to do anything at all. Once Sturgeon’s request has been refused, she may consider her mandate fulfilled. Of course, the First Minister may not see it that way.

But even the SNP manifesto, in describing the process by which a second referendum could be held, says: “We will discuss with the UK government the necessary transfer of power to put a referendum beyond legal challenge and in the hands of the Scottish Parliament.” What’s interesting about that sentence is the use of the word “necessary”, which most people would take to mean, well, “necessary”.

Anyway, so much for the legal and political background. A more interesting question is, in an ideal world in which the UK government is still run by David Cameron and nationalists can still get anything they want just by holding out their hand (nationalists don’t say “please”), when do they actually want to hold their rerun referendum?

Sturgeon has insisted that it would not be immediate and that more urgent issues demand her attention first, like leading Scotland out of the Covid pandemic and into recovery. Heaven forfend that anyone should think that independence is all she cares about! The year after next has been talked about, though Ms Sturgeon’s deputy, Keith Brown, has said publicly he wants one “as soon as it’s safe to do so”, which isn’t the party line and he may find himself in a re-education camp before Holyrood’s official re-opening.

The First Minister’s comments during every televised leaders’ debate during the campaign may give a clue to her own preferred timetable. She tended to answer virtually every question by citing the name of the Prime Minister and the name of his party. Repeatedly. This technique, judging by the results of the election, works. Johnson is indeed less popular in Scotland than he is in the Tory heartlands of Hartlepool and Birmingham. 

So what better platform for a new referendum on independence than in the immediate aftermath of a UK general election at which a triumphant Boris Johnson is carried shoulder high by the mob back into Downing Street?

That would be her ideal scenario. The more likely one, however, will give her nightmares. Johnson has learned from his predecessor-but-one’s mistakes and is in no mood to capitulate to nationalists. That leaves Sturgeon with a problem. She needs to hold some form of referendum, but even if she is somehow allowed to hold merely an indicative, non-binding vote (which may arguably be within her power), it will be eagerly boycotted by pro-UK voters who will spend the entire campaign stirring up apathy across the country and not appearing in televised debates in order not to debate independence with her. Such an exercise would be expensive, pointless and would show Scotland in a very poor light indeed.

If all this sounds just a tad light-hearted, that is because we have gone well beyond the point at which Scottish politics can be taken remotely seriously. It may one day return to the more grown-up business of trying to deliver good schools and world class hospitals. But before that can happen, the SNP need to fail. 

Sturgeon is about to embark on the longest tightrope walk of her career. She cannot afford to put a single step wrong this time.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.