The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this afternoon set out revised plans for holding a second independence referendum after “reflecting” on the outcome of the 2017 General Election in which her party lost 21 seats and saw their share of the vote plunge from 50% to 37%.
Almost a month after the UK went to the polls, the First Minister confirmed that she would “reset” her initial plans – which were to hold a referendum between the autumn of next year and spring 2019 – and would not “immediately” set out legislation, as she intended to do.
Securing a softer Brexit
The most pressing priority for the Scottish Government was now to influence the Brexit negotiations to protect Scotland’s interests.
Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs that the Scottish Government would “redouble” its efforts to keep Scotland in the Single Market, as advocated in the Scotland’s Place in Europe paper. However, the First Minister asserted that her Government still had an unquestionable “mandate” to pursue a second independence referendum and believed that voters should still be offered a choice at the end of the Brexit process.
Due to the damaging consequences of Brexit to Scotland, and the UK Government “riding roughshod” over the devolutionary settlement, she said “the ability to choose a different path” must still be available to Scottish voters: “I want to reassure people that our proposal is not for a referendum now, or before there is sufficient clarity about the options, but rather to give them a choice at the end of the Brexit process, when that clarity has emerged.”
As one Scottish political journalist put it, that was the First Minister’s way of saying ‘now is not the time’.
Political reaction and next steps
During questioning, the unionist parties called on the First Minister to drop her plans for a second independence vote completely.
Ruth Davidson asked why the First Minister had not taken the Independence Referendum Bill off the table for the duration of the current parliament. The First Minister responded that this was due to the possible “disastrous” consequences of Brexit. Kezia Dugdale said the issue of indyref 2 was now “dead”. Willie Rennie wanted Holyrood to vote on ruling out a second vote on independence this term, a position which the First Minister described as lacking consistency considering his party’s stance on holding a second EU referendum.
Undeterred, the First Minister confirmed that she would return to the Scottish Parliament next autumn, once the Brexit picture was clearer, to set out plans for the exact timing of a choice on Scotland’s constitutional future.
Pushing the reset button
In resetting her referendum plans, the First Minister had a tricky balancing act: to take stock after a disappointing General Election campaign while at the same time not letting down her pro-independence supporters.
For her critics, the Scottish Government should instead be focusing on the day job rather than seeking another referendum so soon after the last one. At the end of her speech, Nicola Sturgeon said she would set out “bold” legislative plans in the Programme for Government in September.
However, with the SNP having been in power for ten years, and when they face challenges on key bread and butter issues like educational standards, many would say that she needs to press the reset button not only on independence but on her domestic agenda too.