Great Britain

SNP needs more than narrow poll lead before Scottish independence referendum – Ian Swanson

indyref2: Nicola Sturgeon cautioned an advisory vote could backfire (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
indyref2: Nicola Sturgeon cautioned an advisory vote could backfire (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

Nicola Sturgeon is right to focus on building greater support in Scotland for her ultimate ambition of independence, writes Ian Swanson

AS the UK officially left the European Union on Friday, ending almost five decades of the closest relationship with the continent, a new poll showed a majority of Scots now back independence.

It was the first time that polling organisation YouGov had found over 50 per cent in favour of a separate Scotland since 2015.

But the margin was narrow – just 51 per cent to 49. Given the current political situation – Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will, the election of a Tory UK Government with a large majority and the poor state of the UK opposition parties – it is perhaps surprising the support for independence is not much higher.

The same day, Nicola Sturgeon set out the “next steps” towards independence in a speech at Edinburgh’s Dynamic Earth.

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These include calling a new Constitutional Convention of MSPs, MPs, the now-redundant MEPs elected last year and council leaders to endorse a “modern Claim of Right”.

Ms Sturgeon also said the Scottish Government would publish a series of “New Scotland” papers to answer people’s questions about how independence would work. And she promised the SNP’s Social Justice Commission would unveil proposals on how the powers of independence could be used to create a fairer society.

Legal and legitimate

In a concession to the opposition, the First Minister also announced the referendum question – “Should Scotland be an independent country?” – would be re-tested by the Electoral Commission.

But perhaps the most controversial elements of her speech were her acknowledgement that the referendum she has been demanding this year may have to be “after the next (2021) Scottish election” and her insistence that whenever it happens the referendum must be “legal and legitimate”.

In the face of Boris Johnson’s declaration that he will not allow another referendum while he is Prime Minister, there has been growing pressure from SNP activists for the Scottish Government to call an unofficial or “advisory” referendum.

Ms Sturgeon has always resisted such a move and she did so again on Friday, saying that unless the legality of the vote was beyond doubt, other countries would not recognise the outcome.

SNP’s best path

But some senior SNP figures argue the Government should explore this path – not actually calling an advisory referendum but legislating for one and allowing it to be tested in the courts.

Ms Sturgeon gave some ground to them in her speech, saying: “We may reach the point where it is necessary for this issue to be tested – I am not ruling that out.”

But she continued: “The outcome would be uncertain. There would be no guarantees. It could move us forward – but equally it could set us back.”

And she said energy should instead be concentrated on building the case for independence.

The advocates of an advisory vote, however, believe testing it in court could prove helpful either way. Success would allow a referendum to go ahead legally without requiring the approval of Boris Johnson. But even if the court rejected the case for an advisory referendum, the ruling would, they argue, help fuel demands for the right to hold a new vote.

That might or might not prove true. But whatever the best path for the SNP, its first priority, if it is to achieve its goal, must surely be to increase the support for independence well above that 51 per cent. Otherwise it risks another defeat.