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. 

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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 political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.