The Scottish Government has published its referendums ‘framework’ legislation at Holyrood.
Given that arguments for and against a second independence referendum have formed a constant undercurrent to Scottish politics since the Brexit vote in 2016, what does this latest development mean for the Scottish constitutional debate – are we really any closer to indyref 2?
While the new Referendums (Scotland) Bill sets the rules for holding referendums on any matters within Scotland’s control, it is being viewed squarely within the context of independence.
Scottish Ministers argue that establishing a framework of rules will allow future referendums to take place in a timely fashion and highlights that a framework for Westminster referendums already exists under UK legislation. This Bill sets out rules about the franchise, voting and campaigning but future referendum questions and timing would be set by secondary legislation. Therefore there are no firm developments regarding when the Scottish Government will offer the people of Scotland a choice on independence.
We know that the Scottish Government intends to pass this framework Bill by the end of 2019 and the First Minister says she intends to hold an independence referendum later this parliamentary term (i.e. by May 2021). This week she gave more detail saying that the latter half of 2020 would be the right time.
Opposition parties continue to accuse the Scottish Government of being obsessed with independence to the detriment of domestic issues such as health and education. However there is a pro-independence majority at Holyrood and the SNP can rely on the support of the Greens to get this Bill passed.
The key barrier facing the Scottish Government is that it does not have the power to legally hold a referendum on independence. Ahead of the 2014 vote, the UK Government passed a Section 30 Order which temporarily transferred this power to the Scottish Government and the two reached an agreement on the timing and question wording.
Nicola Sturgeon intends to secure another Section 30 Order to ensure that a second independence referendum is deemed legitimate. However the UK Government has already dismissed this and candidates for the Conservative leadership are lining up to rule out allowing a second referendum anytime soon.
While it is hard to see the UK Government granting a Section 30 order, the future Prime Minister will need to be aware that withholding this power may further the SNP’s cause. Nicola Sturgeon argues that blocking indyref 2 would be a ‘democratic outrage’ and is betting on this position not being sustainable in the long run.
The new Referendums Bill will set the context for the political debate for the coming months. Nicola Sturgeon is yet to ask for a Section 30 Order but when she does, we can expect political brinkmanship as the Prime Minister wrestles with whether to enable Scotland to have its say on its future against the backdrop of Brexit.
The view from our Public Affairs team
Jodie Gordon – Although a number of candidates for the Conservative leadership have already ruled out allowing a second referendum, there has also been some speculation as to whether the First Minister may be relying on the future Prime Minister doing just that.
While the recent elections do point to a growing support for the SNP, Brexit has not exactly been a positive advert for those currently opposed to the legislative complexities that come with breaking up a union. A block on a second vote, whenever that may be, would help to support the SNP’s argument that the UK Government is preventing Scotland from having a say on its own future and would also buy the party the much needed time to try to instill confidence in those who remain unconvinced.
Moray Macdonald – The First Minister had to push ahead with her plans to hold another independence referendum or risk an uprising from SNP members. At the moment there isn’t an appetite by the UK Government to grant permission to hold a referendum, but as we’ve seen over the past few years we shouldn’t assume that political norms will hold.
The most important factor in Nicola Sturgeon’s decision will be whether she can win a new referendum or not. Many people are saying that we will need to see consistent polling in support of independence before the First Minister fires the starting gun, in recent times support for independence hasn’t gone above 45%.
Luke Skipper – This is part paving bill part balancing act for the Scottish Government. The SNP need to keep the option of a referendum open, for which they have a mandate from their manifesto.
The resignation of Theresea May, while not unexpected, has thrown a new dynamic of uncertainty into the Brexit process, especially given how many of the front runners are advocated a much harder or even no deal Brexit. While opponents of the SNP constantly attack the party for effectively pursuing its raison d’etre, this tactic didn’t seem to pay dividends for the unionist parties in the recent Euro elections. A majority of Scottish people want another referendum on independence –they just disagree about when.
Niki Stark – In a less headline grabbing announcement this week, Constitutional Relations Secretary Mike Russell updated MSPs on preparations for a Citizen’s Assembly and plans for cross-party talks on how best to equip Holyrood for the challenges of the future, in light of Brexit.
It is clear that the SNP’s independence strategy recognises that, this time round, it must work harder to appeal to voters who are currently unpersuaded by the case for independence by taking forward a much more inclusive and consensus seeking approach.