EDINBURGH — The Scottish National Party might be a happier crew than in recent years but they are no closer to independence.
Armed with new lines — plus some familiar arguments — aimed at convincing Scots of her vision of an independent Scotland inside the European Union, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon used her keynote conference speech Monday to restart a more outward-facing push toward a second referendum.
While this time last year Sturgeon’s party was beset by infighting over independence and other tricky policy issues, the mood at this year’s virtual gathering of the faithful was buoyant. Despite attacks from the breakaway Alba party, formed ahead of May’s parliamentary elections to run on a more radical pro-independence ticket, the SNP were more united than they have been for many years.
In forming a party so critical of Sturgeon, Alba leader Alex Salmond has arguably done his former protege a favor by drawing disaffected SNP members out of her party.
However, united or not, the SNP must still face a significant barrier on the path to independence: the U.K. government. Before the first minister had even finished speaking Monday, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman had dismissed her call for “co-operation” between the governments on a second referendum.
Earlier this month, the SNP-led Scottish government ordered officials to restart work on a “detailed prospectus” making the case for independence. Now joined by fellow pro-independence party the Scottish Greens in government, the SNP have said a new referendum should take place by 2023.
Johnson’s U.K. government have so far indicated they won’t grant a new referendum as Scotland voted to stay in the U.K. in 2014, though Scottish Secretary Alister Jack recently told POLITICO another referendum could be held if 60 percent of Scots wanted one.
Path to a second referendum
As the debate enters a new phase, the pro-independence camp’s key arguments can roughly be divided into two.
On Monday, Sturgeon first demonstrated the SNP’s attempt to normalize the idea of independence, a technique beloved by SNP technocrats who believe Scots on the fence will be convinced of the merits of independence if they see it not as a radical jump into the unknown, but as an obvious tweak that “works” for other countries of a similar size to Scotland.
“For countries of Scotland’s size, independence works,” Sturgeon said, sticking to the script. “It works for Denmark, for Ireland, for Austria, for Norway, for Finland — and for so many others beside. These are disparate countries with different resources and economies, but independence works for all of them.” The U.K.’s exit from the EU despite Scotland’s vote to Remain has helped the pro-EU SNP make this argument, as they now point to the prize of re-joining as a plus point for independence.
Second, Sturgeon asked Scots to look at the alternative of remaining tethered to Westminster, a more typically populist argument that is easy for the SNP thanks to Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland.
For her part Sturgeon warned that Brexit “is a direct Tory hit on some of Scotland’s key strengths,” even suggesting that “Westminster will use all that damage that they have inflicted as an argument for yet more Westminster control … by making us poorer, they’ll say we can’t afford to be independent.”
In the aftermath of the speech, Scottish Tory lawmaker Donald Cameron accused Sturgeon of inventing a “wild conspiracy theory.”
“Instead of focusing on the NHS crisis and protecting jobs, Nicola Sturgeon has invented her own nationalist Project Fear,” he said.
At the conference, SNP members passed a motion endorsing the leadership’s plans to present a draft referendum bill at the Scottish Parliament, which, if passed, would see the Scottish government legislate for a referendum at the “earliest” possible moment after the pandemic. If Westminster blocks this, the issue is likely to be settled in a court which would decide whether the Scottish government has the power to hold a legally binding referendum.
“It is in that spirit of co-operation that I hope the Scottish and U.K. governments can reach agreement — as we did in 2014 — to allow the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland to be heard and respected,” Sturgeon said.
“But, this much is clear. Democracy must — and will — prevail,” she added, signaling the SNP’s willingness to take independence to the courts if necessary. Pro-union politicians are quietly confident any legal challenge is likely to be settled in their favor.
Though some pro-independence supporters have expressed unease at the timescale and the lack of a plan B if there is no agreement with Westminster and legal action fails, opposition to the SNP leadership’s blueprint from inside the party was relatively limited.
While this will be welcomed by Sturgeon, she has a lot of work do to disprove Salmond’s critique that her quest for independence is like “Groundhog Day.”
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