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For Nicola Sturgeon, a second Scottish independence referendum is win-win

If Downing Street agrees to hold it, Yes start as favourites. If Theresa May blocks a vote, the nationalists' big argument is only strengthened. 

Breaking: the United Kingdom. Nicola Sturgeon has announced that she will seek a second referendum on whether or not Scotland should become an independent nation.

But the right to hold a referendum is reserved to Westminster, not devolved to Holyrood. Downing Street have issued a statement saying that the Scottish people “do not want” another referendum, though they haven’t explicitly said they will block the Scottish parliament from holding another referendum.

Are they right to do so?

The SNP were the only party in Holyrood to have an explicit commitment to hold another referendum should the circumstances of the Union change – a de facto Brexit clause – and they won neither a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament nor a majority in the popular vote. The Scottish Greens, who will vote with the SNP, giving them the votes they need to get over the line in Holyrood, offered only to have a referendum following “a petition signed by an appropriate number of voters”.

So on paper, Downing Street has a good case for simply refusing to hold another referendum. In the real world, however, the incentives are less clear. Yes, in the short term, anything that strengthens the referendum polarity in Scotland helps the Scottish Conservatives as well as the SNP. The success of that party north of the border has two pillars: firstly, the personal popularity of Ruth Davidson, and secondly, that they have painted themselves as the unapologetic party of the union. So while Scotland’s constitutional future remains a live issue, that is good news for the Scottish Conservatives, at least electorally speaking.

For the Unionist side, now is a time of high peril as far as holding a referendum is concerned. Government ministers are in reassurance mode as far as Brexit and the Irish border are concerned, and any guarantees they make in one direction harm them in the other. In 2014, Ed Miliband was widely believed to be course for Downing Street. Now, Jeremy Corbyn is widely believed to be on course for landslide defeat. If the SNP play their cards right, the most powerful message in the referendum campaign will be one picture – that of Theresa May in Downing Street – and  one word: forever.

The question of who will lead the referendum campaign is murky, too. For all Better Together was a fractious beast, that it was a cross-party campaign added weight, fairly or unfairly, to its statements and warnings. The Unionist parties will be more likely to go it alone and the most high profile No campaigner will be Ruth Davidson, a Conservative. And in 2014, much of the No side was based on the idea that staying in the United Kingdom was the only way to preserve the Scottish status quo. The Scottish status quo is going to come apart in 2019 whatever happens. No's only cards will be a campaign based on the potential risk to pensions after a Yes vote and the higher immigration that Scotland would need to keep pace with its ageing population. 

All of which means that Downing Street will be sorely tempted to believe that it is in their best interests to hold off a referendum re-run for as long as possible. If Labour enjoys a revival in England or if Brexit turns out to be a success, then it will be harder for the Yes side to win out in the next independence referendum.   

But in terms of the SNP’s wider argument, it’s not a good look if the Scottish Parliament approves a referendum only to be denied by the Conservative government in London. There is nothing stopping Holyrood from holding a non-binding consultative referendum, after all.

For Unionists, what should trouble them is that their side looks worryingly like the pro-European side before the In-Out referendum: not really arguing for the Union in of itself, but merely arguing against the right of the Scottish government to hold a referendum. That’s not very fertile territory to fight and win the next referendum, whenever it may be.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.