It’s a familiar scene from countless Hollywood thrillers: the hero has to defuse a bomb while the clock ticks down to zero. As the big boom draws ever closer, all careful consideration of which wires should be cut in which order goes out the window. Our hero, bathed in sweat, closes her eyes and snips at random.
This, roughly, is what Nicola Sturgeon has done this week. With the window of opportunity for a second independence referendum beginning to close, she has gambled on a course of action that has the potential to go very badly wrong. Only time will tell whether the day is saved or whether the independence cause is about to be blown to smithereens.
Sturgeon’s unveiling of her indyref2 plan at Holyrood was not without its smarts. The constitutional debate has been stuck for some years, due to an intransigent British government and an ambivalent Scottish electorate, and seemed to be heading nowhere fast. Therefore, if she wanted something to happen she had to take a risk. That is what she has done. Like a teenage delinquent, she has chucked a brick through the window and is now waiting to see what the response is.
Cleverly, the First Minister has foreshortened a tortuous period of legal wrangling by asking the Lord Advocate, Scotland’s senior law officer, to refer her plan for a referendum on 19 October next year to the Supreme Court. That was always where the matter was going to end up anyway, to test whether Holyrood has the competence to call such a vote without Westminster’s approval, but Sturgeon has taken control of the process rather than leave it to her opponents to seek a ruling. It’s the kind of supple prestidigitation we used to expect from Alex Salmond. There are questions about whether the court will be willing to rule on what is currently a hypothetical situation, as the referendum bill has not yet been put before the Scottish Parliament, but it’s worth a go.
It’s what comes next that really counts, however. If the court rules that Holyrood does not have the authority to hold a referendum – and that is what legal opinion seems to expect – then Sturgeon says the SNP will fight the next general election on the single issue of independence. A majority of votes for the party will be taken as an instruction to begin negotiations for Scotland to leave the UK.
It’s quite something that the modern, slick SNP machine has been forced to return to what is in effect an antiquated, pre-devolution strategy. There is no denying that it somewhat smacks of desperation; it is a blunt-force move wholly lacking in the strategic finesse that has until now characterised the approach to securing independence.
Seen from the Nats’ perspective, it is perhaps also understandable. It is driven by a question first raised by Ciaran Martin, who as constitution director at the Cabinet Office worked on the framework for the 2014 referendum. Now an academic, Martin has pointed out that if pro-independence parties gaining a majority of seats at Holyrood – as they did in last year’s devolved election – is not a legitimate trigger for a referendum then it is hard to see what the democratic route to one is. The absence of such a pathway, he argues, risks transforming the UK from a union of consent into one held together by force.
It was no surprise that Sturgeon used this line as she set out her plans on Tuesday, warning that Scottish democracy risks becoming “a prisoner of a UK prime minister”. It is probably her strongest argument for pushing ahead in such an aggressive way. Both sides might have cause to lament that, in the aftermath of the 2014 result, formal terms and conditions weren’t agreed for when and how a referendum could be re-run. But that opportunity has long since passed: we are now in Wacky Races territory.
The First Minister’s gamble is a significant one, for several reasons. First, there is no reason the British government need accept that a majority vote for the SNP in a general election licences independence negotiations simply because the party says it does. Such an outcome may increase pressure for an actual referendum to be held, especially if Labour is poised to take power as a minority administration. But that is not Sturgeon’s stated aim.
Second, claiming a general election is “a de facto referendum” on a single issue is close to a revolutionary act. The SNP, Scotland’s largest party by some distance, will campaign solely on independence in an election in which parties are expected instead to set out a broad range of policies. In 2019 the Nat manifesto included a host of pledges, such as the devolution of drugs policy, employment law and immigration powers, fair pensions and an end to the two-child cap on tax credits. The next one, according to Sturgeon, will simply say that a vote for the SNP will mean Scotland becomes independent. This is an agenda that would literally fit on the back of a postage stamp, or perhaps the back of a fag packet.
It is difficult to judge how the Scottish electorate will react when the time comes. Sturgeon has given herself no option but to pursue grievance max as a strategy if she is to persuade her countrymen and women that Westminster is unfairly denying them a basic democratic right. She will have to deliberately drive tensions to boiling point and then convince a large number of voters who say they have no particular desire for a referendum that in fact they are gagging for one. She will have to do this while people are coping with a horrendous cost-of-living crisis and all its associated challenges, plus the ongoing hangover from Covid. Are her priorities ours?
Certainly, the approach will irritate some voters and attract others. Sturgeon is counting on the latter outnumbering the former. But the electorate does not like to be taken for granted, or railroaded by politicians for the sake of political expediency. They are not sheep to be chased into a particular pen. If Sturgeon’s big gamble fails, then her one-policy manifesto could turn out to be the shortest suicide note in history.