Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496