Why Nicola Sturgeon is playing a long game on Scottish independence

The First Minister knows that her demand of a "soft Brexit" is unlikely to be met.

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When the UK voted to leave the EU, many assumed that Scotland would soon vote to leave the UK. In contrast to the rest of Britain, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. On the day following the referendum, Nicola Sturgeon warned: "It is a significant and material change in circumstances - and it is therefore a statement of the obvious that the option of a second referendum must be on the table. And it is on the table."

But six months later, the SNP leader is striking a notably different tone. She told the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme that she was prepared to "put aside" her "preferred option of independence" if a "hard Brexit" could be avoided. "Am I going to stop arguing for independence or believing in independence? Am I going to stop believing that Scotland is on a journey to independence?

"No, but we're talking here about the particular context and timescale of Brexit - and I'm putting these proposals forward in good faith. I'm deliberately saying, 'put my preferred option to one side' and asking people if we can find a consensus and compromise option."

What's Sturgeon's game? It's unsurprising that the First Minister isn't rushing towards a second referendum. Contrary to expectations, polls have shown no rise in support for independence since the Brexit vote. A BMG/Herald survey last week put the Yes side on 45.5 per cent, almost identical to the 2014 result. As long as the polls remain static, the SNP will not stage a second vote. Party strategists believe that that they would need a 20-point lead to be confident of victory (owing to the likelihood of a Unionist swingback). Mindful of the fate of Quebec's secessionists, the nationalists will not re-run the battle under current conditions.

But if Stugeon is not ruling a referendum in, she is also not ruling one out. As the First Minister well knows, a "soft Brexit" of the kind she seeks is unlikely. Theresa May has consistently vowed to achieve control over immigration, a demand that would force the UK to leave the single market. The EU 27 have long made it clear that they regard the "four freedoms" (of goods, people, services and capital) as indivisible.

The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made the EU less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

For Sturgeon, then, the reasonable demand for a "soft" withdrawal is a tactical ploy. Its likely rejection offers her a new chance to maximise nationalist support. If Sturgeon has taken one step back, it is only, like Lenin, in order to take two steps forward.

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.