If Nicola Sturgeon wants a new referendum, now is the time to set the timetable | Kevin McKenna

Why wait for Brexit? The window for another campaign will not be open for ever

‘Managing expectations” is the SNP’s favoured locution in describing its current thinking about a second referendum on Scottish independence. “Profound vagueness” would be a less charitable take. It was evident whenever any of the party’s high command was faced with a microphone over the course of last week’s conference in Glasgow. Nicola Sturgeon elevated it to an art form in her keynote speech to the faithful on Tuesday afternoon.

Press and delegates alike are accustomed to greeting the first minister’s discourses at these occasions with something approaching acclaim and her address this year lacked none of the polish and eloquence they have recently come to expect from her. She is the only UK political leader who exudes authority, leadership and the poise of a statesperson.

She needed all of this and more. Effectively, she was telling her audience to “quieten down at the back there”. Much of the pre-conference chatter had been about the timing of a second referendum. Her emissaries would have told her that a significant percentage of SNP members were becoming fidgety about the absence of any clear indication from the party’s leadership that another referendum was imminent.

They are buoyed by four years of opinion polls continually indicating that the 45% who voted Yes in 2014 remained intact. Indeed, this number would seem to be at the lower end of the predicted outcomes. The usual unionist players who downplay the numbers of pro-independence rallies and their significance this year are missing something important. Those people of all ages, colours and creeds who have spent entire Saturdays getting to and from these marches are not merely Yes supporters enjoying a wee day out. The legions of door-knockers, leafleters, social media and phone-line operatives required to cajole a Yes vote over the line a second time will come from these marchers. Their numbers simply cannot be matched by the unionist alliance.

Michael Russell, the Scottish government’s Brexit chargé d’affaires, is one of the few SNP figures whose authority and influence within the party do not derive directly from his status as a cabinet minister. While he and John Swinney, the education minister, remain loyal to Sturgeon, she will never encounter any turbulence from within the party.

His task at conference was principally to act as a “reducer”. In his keynote speech, he cautioned supporters that before seeking a second independence referendum they had to wait until “our country is persuaded, ready and determined to win”. This reinforced the principal message of the first minister’s address, in which she told delegates that “we must show people that with the powers of independence we can fully realise our country’s vast potential and take our case to every home, community and workplace across the land”.

These messages haven’t changed in the last four years and the wider Yes movement is wearying of them. People aren’t stupid. Some delegates were suitably charmed by their leader’s address. It was, said one, “a solid commitment that it [a second referendum] would happen”. Has she ever said that it might not?

A carefully cultivated line disseminated by party chiefs and their battalions of advisers is that opinion polls must consistently show a clear majority in favour of independence. Some cite the recent numbers as evidence that support for independence is nowhere near robust enough. It conveniently ignores the fact that in the year before the first independence referendum, support for Yes grew by an astonishing 17 points.

Next time around, the unionist offering will be diminished by the post-Brexit apocalypse and the chilling prospect of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg fighting it out to lead the UK deeper into the wilderness. In Scotland, the Tory MSPs at Holyrood all look like they’re auditioning for Deliverance 2, while Labour in Scotland resembles a drunk man trying to get out of a telephone box.

The window for another Scottish independence campaign has been open for a little while now but it won’t remain so for very long. Last week, Kevin Pringle, the SNP’s former chief spin doctor and a key figure in the party’s 21st-century supremacy, said: “Seeking a mandate for a referendum at the Scottish parliament election in 2021 would give certainty and direction to the SNP and wider Yes movement.” He must know also that anything less than a pro-Yes majority (no easy thing) at that election would effectively kill the prospect of an independent Scotland for decades.

This notion of waiting for the worst effects of Brexit to materialise before swooping to remove Scotland from the mess is wishful thinking and fails to take account of the British state’s ability to convince many that it will emerge unscathed from all thrown at it. When Brexit happens, every lever of a well-maintained propaganda machine will be pulled to ensure that the notion of the good ship UK embarking on a bright future flies. Theresa May’s festival of Britain, the centenary of the BBC and the Queen’s platinum anniversary will come together to ensure that Britain erupts in a ferment of anti-EU patriotism. Many Scots will buy this too.

The SNP leadership is deluding itself if it thinks there will come a time when independence can be guaranteed on poll evidence. The outcome can never be predicted. It will be a close-run thing. The “ideal set of circumstances” for a second independence referendum will never materialise. Those who hope the conditions will suddenly emerge from the fog of Brexit, like a scene out of Brigadoon, are kidding themselves. Now is the time to set a clear timetable for a second referendum.

• Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist


Kevin McKenna

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Nicola Sturgeon must halt this gravy train of wasted government funds | Kevin McKenna
The Scottish National party needs to get a grip on the country’s finances before it throws itself into another independence referendum

Kevin McKenna

23, Jul, 2016 @11:05 PM

Article image
Nicola Sturgeon’s strike for independence should not let the SNP off the hook | Kevin McKenna
The Brexit circus may make this the best chance to break away but problems in Scotland deserve attention too

Kevin McKenna

28, Apr, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Nicola Sturgeon challenges May with second referendum bill
Scottish first minister to publish draft bill for independence poll, saying she has mandate to defend Scotland’s remain vote

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

13, Oct, 2016 @12:25 PM

Article image
Nicola Sturgeon says she would consider 2017 Scottish referendum
SNP leader says she is preparing for independence vote next year in case party is unhappy with approach to Brexit talks

Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent

17, Jul, 2016 @1:50 PM

Article image
England’s sorry delusions are Scotland’s best argument for independence | Kevin McKenna
As the cracks in the union proliferate, the SNP should focus on forward thinking

Kevin McKenna

04, Nov, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
English Tories have lost the slightest reason to care about the union | Kevin McKenna
Getting shot of Scotland would leave Boris Johnson in power for decades

Kevin McKenna

27, Oct, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Nicola Sturgeon signals Scotland referendum could be held after Brexit
First minister indicates she could wait until after UK leaves EU in March 2019 if more time needed to confirm Brexit terms

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

14, Mar, 2017 @4:26 PM

Article image
Nicola Sturgeon has good reasons for wanting Britain to stay in the EU | Lesley Riddoch
While Brexit might seem to serve the SNP’s goal of Scottish independence, the Scots are pro-European, and don’t want to be governed by a rightwing rabble

Lesley Riddoch

22, Jun, 2016 @10:59 AM

Article image
Westminster’s contempt has lifted Scotland’s hopes of independence | Kevin McKenna
The Commons showdown and SNP walkout have put the spotlight sharply on Brexit’s impact on devolution

Kevin McKenna

17, Jun, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Rivals rejoice at Nicola Sturgeon’s departure, but Scots still need persuading the union is home | Andrew Rawnsley
The exit of the SNP’s most formidable advocate offers Labour an opportunity that Sir Keir Starmer can’t afford to squander

Andrew Rawnsley

19, Feb, 2023 @8:30 AM