The public have little appetite for a second independence referendum—and it's not clear Brexit will change that (yet)by John Curtice / June 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
Bloodied but, as yet, unbowed. That seems to be where Nicola Sturgeon now finds herself in the wake of her announcement in the Scottish Parliament yesterday that she proposed to “reset” her timetable for a second independence referendum.
Until now she had anticipated holding such a ballot in late 2018 or early 2019—that is, just before the deadline for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Yesterday, however, she said she would not attempt to introduce the legislation needed to hold a second referendum until the autumn of next year.
As a result, while the possibility of holding a second referendum within the relatively near future remains “on the table,” it is now highly unlikely that any ballot will be held before the UK leaves the EU.
A loss of public enthusiasm
There were three key considerations behind the First Minister’s decision. The most immediate was the losses the SNP suffered in the general election earlier this month. The party’s share of the vote fell from 50 per cent to 37 per cent, costing it 21 of the 56 seats that it had won in 2015.
That loss occurred in the wake of sustained criticism, and especially so from a revived Conservative Party, of the First Minister’s plans for “indyref2”—together with opinion poll evidence that there was not much enthusiasm for a second ballot anytime soon.
How far the SNP’s losses were occasioned by the row about a second referendum is far from clear, but there is little doubt that it is widely regarded as having been at least a contributory factor, including by some nationalists themselves.
Brexit means. . . not much
The second consideration was that Brexit has not moved the polling numbers on how people would vote in a second independence referendum. Few of those who voted No in September 2014 have been persuaded that the prospect of Scotland being required to leave the EU—even though 62 per cent of Scots had voted in favour of remaining—is sufficient reason to want to leave the UK.
The last half dozen polls on how people would vote in a second referendum have, on average, put Yes support at 44 per cent, no higher than the 45 per cent vote registered in the September 2014 referendum.
Scotland the cautious
As Sturgeon acknowledged in her speech yesterday, the nationalist movement in Scotland still has to persuade a majority of Scots that the country should become independent.
There is, in truth, no good reason for the SNP to want to hold a second ballot until it looks likely that it will win.
What, though, was missing from the First Minister’s statement was any indication as to how she proposed to set about the task of persuading more people of the merits of independence. Publication of a key report from the former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson, on a revised economic case for independence, is still awaited.
The question of Europe
Finally, the outcome of the 2017 election across the UK as a whole gives the Scottish government at least some reason to hope that Brexit may not be quite so hard after all.
A minority UK government, whose own supporters are potentially divided on what the shape of Brexit should be, now faces an opposition which seems to want a rather closer relationship with the EU in future than the prime minister apparently has in mind.
And in a white paper published last December the Scottish government made it clear if the UK secured a soft Brexit that, inter alia, maintained membership of the single market, it would not pursue a second independence ballot.
Whether this new hope will be realised is, of course, another matter. But in the meantime, it has given the First Minister some cover for her retreat.
Meanwhile, if Brexit does look as though it will go pear-shaped, then do not be surprised if the First Minister eventually revives her plans for a second referendum—assuming, that is, that a potentially bad Brexit does help persuade a majority of Scots that they should be pulling for independence after all.