Sturgeon’s IndyRef Next Steps: Nothing Has Changed, or a New Pragmatic Approach?

The words ‘nothing has changed’ are usually ascribed to the Prime Minister Theresa May but they could also apply to the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who unveiled the next steps for Scotland’s constitutional journey yesterday at Holyrood.

The First Minister confirmed that should Brexit go ahead, a second independence referendum should be held within the lifetime of the current parliament – i.e. before the Holyrood elections in May 2021. Legislation would now be prepared for that eventuality.

The three unionist parties – the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrats – all criticised her statement and the priority attached to a second independence referendum, while the pro-independence Scottish Greens backed the First Minister.

However, what was announced essentially reiterated what she said around two years ago that it was “likely” that a second independence referendum would take place before 2021. What, if anything, is new following yesterday’s events?

What are the Scottish Government Proposing?

The Scottish Government intend to introduce a framework Bill which will set out the rules for any second referendum on Scottish independence. The aim of the Bill is to protect the option of an independence referendum within the current parliamentary term.

Aside from the mechanics relating to the framework Bill, there were a few other intriguing developments from the First Minister’s speech.

First, she extended an invitation to other parties to bring forward their own plans for Scotland’s constitutional future.

Second, she also announced the establishment of a Citizens Assembly made up of a cross-section of Scotland and based on the example found in the Republic of Ireland, to consider the contentious constitutional issues at hand.

Sturgeon’s Difficult Balancing Act

Many in the SNP camp and wider Yes movement have called for quicker progress towards holding IndyRef 2, but others have plotted a more cautious and gradualist approach which recognises the difficulty of holding a second vote in the current circumstances, as well as the lack of a consistent majority amongst voters for leaving the UK.

Opposition parties highlighted the convenient timing between the First Minister’s announcement and the upcoming SNP Conference. The First Minister was walking a tricky political tightrope with her words: to appeal to her base who are anxious for a second independence referendum, while at the same time knowing that there is little to no prospect of an imminent second vote.

Independence will naturally take up a considerable proportion of activist chatter during the SNP’s Spring Conference in Edinburgh this weekend. The Agenda shows that members will discuss a Citizens’ Assembly and a fairly lengthy resolution on the Sustainable Growth Commission. All par for the course for a party whose raison d’être is independence.

Of course, the following week, another conference will be similarly exercised by the First Minister’s indyref gambit: the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party gathering in Aberdeen. The party partially owes its increased presence at both Holyrood and Westminster to their unflinching opposition to a second independence referendum. They will look to capitalise on the SNP’s focus on independence to the detriment of the ‘bread and butter issues’ of health, education and the economy as they position themselves as Scotland’s next Scottish Government.

What Happens Next?

A framework Bill will be brought forward by the Scottish Government and this is expected to be finalised before the end of 2019. The Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations, Michael Russell will shortly provide a statement at Holyrood providing more detail of the Scottish Government’s approach.

Once the Bill is eventually passed at Holyrood – it would secure the votes of the pro-independence Scottish Greens – it would then require the transfer of power at a later date via a Section 30 Order to proceed to a vote on independence. A Section 30 Order through the 1998 Scotland Act provided the basis for the vote back in September 2014.

However, more constitutional wrangling will inevitably ensue: the current UK Government will refuse a Section 30 Order and may refer a Bill passed without it to the UK Supreme Court. Indeed, earlier today, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington confirmed that Holyrood would not be granted consent to hold another independence referendum.

The only way things could conceivably change would be with a change of government at Westminster.

In sum: nothing has really changed.