Could the SNP use a referendum on Brexit to get a People’s Vote of its own?

Scotland’s Brexit negotiator Mike Russell said the SNP could ask for a Section 30 order. 

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Nicola Sturgeon confirming that the SNP would back a People’s Vote in the run up to the party’s conference was undoubtedly significant, if only because of Scotland’s Remainer-in-chief having been silent on a second referendum on the Brexit deal up until now. But few asked what Sturgeon actually meant when she asked for a People’s Vote.

As James Millar wrote for the New Statesman, one of the reasons the SNP was so hesitant to back the idea was because the precedent of reverting to the status quo could also apply to a Scottish context. The more astute indyreffers realise that there could be a possibility that, post-Scoxit, a coalition of diehard unionists and regretful swing voters could demand much the same thing.

There are two reasons the SNP has come round to a People’s Vote. The first is simply that it’s not very likely to happen – or at least only as likely as another general election. “In my view, the outcomes can include and may include a referendum, they might include a People’s Vote referendum, they might include an election, it is so difficult to tell what might happen in future. People’s Vote it’s hard to find the parliamentary numbers for that to take place,” Mike Russell, the Scottish government cabinet secretary with responsibility for Brexit negotiations, told the New Statesman.

But there’s another reason. The SNP has spent the last year and a half revisiting Sturgeon’s March 2017 call for another Scottish independence referendum, and the dismal losses in the general election that followed. This sequence included Theresa May’s willingness to legally block a second referendum (she was happy to remind them of it at the start of this year’s conference). While the SNP grassroots may be cheerleaders for Catalonia, the party’s leadership believes that a referendum still needs to be held under the auspices of Section 30 of the 1998 Scotland Act, which has to be approved by Westminster.

If a referendum on the Brexit deal suddenly looks plausible, the SNP can be expected to negotiate hard with its fellow Remainers before it backs the option. In particular: what would happen if Scotland voted once again against Brexit, but the majority of voters in the UK did not?

“Before we have finalised the People’s Vote project there would have to be substantial discussion about what happened in those circumstances,” Russell said. “Now would that trigger a Section 30 order? Are there other ways to do this? Those are the questions we have to talk about.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.