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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 domestic and global politics.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.