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Nicola Sturgeon plots a path to a 2023 referendum

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The First Minister told the Scottish Parliament of her plans to bring about another referendum on whether Scotland should be independent, with a proposed date of 19 October 2023.

If you’re a supporter of Scottish independence, then yesterday was probably a very good day. Despite the dominance of the SNP at the polls for a decade and a half, there haven’t been many moments in recent years when it felt like the opportunity to vote on independence was on the immediate horizon.

But in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon plotted a path that, if successful, brings that vote closer than ever before. She sought to tackle the big issues standing in the way – UK Government consent and legality – by presenting a carefully crafted plan that could just bring Scottish voters to the polls on October 19, 2023.

For the first time since September 2014, we can now see a potential endgame for this fundamental question about Scotland’s future. It’s not as simple as that, it never is and there are more obstacles in the way than Red Rum faced in the Grand National, but at least now there’s a timeframe.

The plan is to tackle the legal challenges head on before proceeding with legislation for a new vote. It’s been thought that the only route to a new vote was if Westminster approved it. Up until now, the assumption had been that the Scottish Government would introduce legislation in the Scottish Parliament for a new vote that would be ignored by Westminster and legal challenges would take forever to conclude.

Turning that on its head, the Lord Advocate has asked the Supreme Court to consider the Scottish Parliament’s competence now, and at the same time the FM has asked Prime Minister Boris Johnson to allow a vote to proceed in the same manner as his predecessor did for the 2014 vote.

If those avenues both fail then the FM has pledged to make the next General Election, possibly early 2024, a plebiscite – in Scotland at least – on independence. The SNP argument is that a majority in favour of independence has voted in favour of parties that support independence for a number of years, so denying a new vote is denying democracy.

This three-pronged approach puts pressure on the other side to do something other than stick their head in the sand. It doesn’t relieve pressure on the Yes side but having set out a timetable and, in the coming months will bring forward detailed papers on how an independent Scotland might work, momentum is now with them.

But it is not without its dangers. It must seem unlikely that the Supreme Court will rule in favour of the FM’s position. As Tony Blair once told me in an interview, “sovereignty rests with me as a Westminster MP and that’s the way it will stay.” The SNP have never accepted that, but it has long been seen as a core part of the devolution settlement.

It’s also unlikely that Boris Johnson will accept a new vote, though with support for independence, and indeed even a vote, not as strong as the Yes side would want, maybe he could call their bluff and bring a vote forward. And the combined vote at the last Scottish election for parties wanting independence was only a smidgen over 50% so even then a win isn’t a given.

Voters could also become fed up with the independence “obsession” as they wait even longer for medical treatment, face the ongoing cost of living crisis and see no uplift in Scotland’s economic trajectory. Those in business may feel something similar too, but this time surely, they will be looking to be more engaged than in 2014?

Maybe the one clear outcome from yesterday was to kibosh any potential alliance between Labour and the SNP ahead of the next General Election. Could Labour go into an election deal knowing that for the Nats there was only one issue? Surely not. The FM painted Labour as a pale imitation of the Tories yesterday but that was probably more about the fear that a Labour UK Government could drain support from those on the left who back the SNP.

There were some very smug faces on the SNP benches as the FM delivered her statement. Constantly told to stop clapping, they happily ignored the Presiding Officer. There’s long been a feeling of a hegemony in Holyrood and that the Nats can operate without too much fear but that’s been tempered by the lack of a new vote. After yesterday they’ll be feeling that nothing can stop them now. They may be right but if the polls are to be believed, there’s still a long way to go and a lot to do before the majority of the people of Scotland feel the same.

John Penman, Partner

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