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12 January 2023

Does Nicola Sturgeon regret her Scottish independence gamble?

The SNP may announce tests that must be passed before it commits to a “de facto” second referendum.

By Chris Deerin

Nicola Sturgeon is on her fourth prime minister, which would be a more impressive statistic if all of them had lasted longer than it takes a lettuce to rot.

But still, nine years as First Minister in a national and global political climate that has been astonishingly febrile is no mean achievement. And for all critics like me might grumble about Sturgeon’s record in government, her personal popularity remains stubbornly high among Scottish voters.

As for the others, results have been mixed. The SNP leader got along well enough with David Cameron, but found Theresa May hard work (who didn’t?). She showed fine judgement in almost instantly disliking Boris Johnson. One suspects Rishi Sunak, every bit as polished as Cameron, will restore relations to tolerable.

Sturgeon meets Sunak in Edinburgh today (12 January). Though her fourth Tory PM, he is only the third to be ushered into The Presence, because Liz Truss came and went before such an audience could be arranged. Given Truss had dismissed Sturgeon as an “attention seeker” who should be “ignored” that was probably for the best.

One of the few things Johnson got right (and one of the many things Truss got wrong) was in deciding to treat the Scottish government seriously and positively, regardless of what came back the other way. The icy relationship between the May and Sturgeon administrations had done the Union little good, and under the guidance of the canny Michael Gove, Johnson’s Tories adopted a strategy of killing with kindness: always be polite in public; always promise to read the latest angry letter from Edinburgh and then respond in mannerly fashion; keep seeking to work with Holyrood to improve the lot of Scots.

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The idea was to deprive the Nationalists of oxygen for their grievance politics, and to try at least to come across to voters as the grown-ups in the relationship. The results were mixed, admittedly, but strategic options on the Scottish front are somewhat limited. If, as rumoured, there is a joint announcement on planned Free Ports in Scotland after today’s meeting that would suggest some constructive ground has been found, if only for now.

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[See also: The NHS crisis has left the SNP with nowhere to hide]

Another obvious matter for discussion between the two leaders is the recent passage of the Gender Reform Bill through the Scottish Parliament, which will make it easier and quicker for people to legally change gender. The UK government is considering intervening to prevent the bill gaining royal assent on the basis it would breach equality law, which is a reserved matter. Perhaps the issue will come up, but as it has quickly become a matter of politics as much as principle, both sides may prefer to let it brew as they calculate their next steps.

Both leaders will have the next general election on their minds. Sunak is fighting what looks like a doomed battle to keep his party in power and avoid becoming just the latest short-lived PM. Scotland will not be riding to his rescue any time soon. The stakes for Sturgeon are no lower: she has decreed that the next general election will be a de facto independence referendum and that if pro-independence parties win more than 50 per cent of the vote the SNP will begin separation negotiations with Westminster. Both Westminster and the Scottish electorate may have something to say about that.

Her referendum plan is seen by few in the SNP as the brilliant wheeze Sturgeon initially thought it was. I’m fairly sure that Sturgeon herself now rather regrets her impulsive commitment, which was made even before the Supreme Court ruled in November that Holyrood had no power to hold a referendum on its own, and which gave her no room for manoeuvre when the court announced its decision. She was stuck with her commitment to a de facto referendum, even as it became ever clearer that as a strategy for securing independence it was high-risk, half-baked, probably doomed to failure and potentially disastrous for the independence cause in the longer term.

Sturgeon has announced a special conference on 19 March where her party will “discuss and decide the way forward to secure independence”. This is seen by SNP sources as an attempt to build some wriggle room into her “de facto” plan, and also to ensure that if it goes ahead, and if it fails, Sturgeon will not seem to be the only one to blame.

SNP strategists are exploring what that “wriggle room” might look like. One idea is that a series of Gordon Brown, euro-style “tests” might be put in place before a final commitment to the plan is confirmed. What these tests might look like is still up in the air but one could be, for example, a sustained lead for independence in the polls over a period of months in the run up to the general election. Then, if these tests were not judged to have been met, Sturgeon would be able to march her party back down the hill yet again.

Sunak and Sturgeon have plenty to deal with at present, and actually not much of it involves the other. They share one thing in common, though: the next election could well do for both of them.

[See also: How do the SNP and Welsh Labour compare with the Tories in England?]