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Is Scotland cooling on independence?
Sensemaker audio

Is Scotland cooling on independence?

Is Scotland cooling on independence?

In Scotland, the SNP is committed to trying again for a referendum on independence. But timing is everything.


Transcript
Claudia williams, narrating:

Hi, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world. 

Today, the battle for Scottish independence: momentum lost? 

***

“I’m absolutely delighted to confirm that the Scottish government has reached a proposed cooperation agreement with the Scottish Greens…” 

STV

In May, the two parties who campaigned to hold a second vote on independence won a majority of seats in the Scottish parliamentary elections.

The Nationalist Party, or SNP, has now been dominant for 14 years. Nicola Sturgeon, the party’s leader, has been in charge for half of that time.  She is the key figure in Scottish politics.

Addressing the SNP party conference, Nicola Sturgeon set out her stall on holding a referendum on independence.

“In the course of next year, I will initiate the process necessary to enable a referendum before the end of 2023.”

Nicola Sturgeon speaking at the SNP party conference

She announced that planning for a second vote on Scottish independence would start next year, eight years on from the last one.

“The people of Scotland have spoken, and it is a clear result. They’ve kept our country of four nations together…” 

David Cameron speaking outside Downing Street in 2014

But that was then. This time round, it’s by no means clear when and if a referendum will go ahead.  

Nicola Sturgeon wants to hold one before the end of 2023, the UK government insists its approval is needed and has said it won’t agree to any request before the next general election.

That could be as far off as May 2024. So a constitutional stand-off between the Scottish and UK governments is in the offing.

“There is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson or indeed anyone else seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our own future.”

Nicola Sturgeon speaking, ITV News

There’s plenty of fighting talk from the nationalists but here’s the thing: support for independence has fallen since last year.

So, have the nationalists missed their moment?  And has Nicola Sturgeon – one of the UK’s most able politicians – got her timing wrong? 

***

Let’s take a moment to look at the opinion polls because last week, market research company Ipsos Mori put the  pro-independence camp 10 points ahead of the camp which wants to preserve the union. 

It’s the first shift in favour of the nationalists since the Scottish Parliamentary elections in May.  So, good news for Nicola Sturgeon.

But it could just be an outlier. Because YouGov’s recent poll had support for independence trailing at 47 percent. 

And if we look back to 2015, senior SNP sources said they had set a “test” for the polls: support for independence must be at the 60 percent mark for more than a year before a second referendum is called. 

Nicola Sturgeon is still short of achieving that. 

And then there’s the return of Covid.

“As we confirmed earlier today, that enhanced surveillance has identified six cases of the Omicron variant in Scotland so far…” 

Nicola Sturgeon speaking at a Covid briefing

Holding a referendum during a pandemic is unthinkable.  Nicola Sturgeon had hoped its impact would have receded so that by early spring next year she would be in a position to make a “concrete decision” on the timing of a referendum.

That’s now looking less likely and, despite her popularity has stood up better than  Boris Johnson’s when it comes to handling the pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon has been accused by pro-union parties of neglecting public health to pursue her constitutional agenda.

“Independence is not a distraction from the task of post-Covid reconstruction, it is essential to get that right.” 

Nicola Sturgeon, Sky News

But polls and Covid aside, what about the rumours that Nicola Sturgeon is ready to step down?  If true, they would undermine the nationalist campaign.

***

In May, Nicola Sturgeon was elected for a five-year term as Scotland’s First Minister. 

But in an interview in October, she fuelled speculation about her future by saying she’s considering becoming a foster mother once she steps down as Scotland’s First Minister and that she was thinking of writing her memoirs. 

Rival parties jumped on this. Douglas Ross, the Tory leader in Scotland, thinks Nicola Sturgeon will quit before the next Holyrood election in 2026, suggesting she “just looks a bit fed up at times.”

“It’s almost as if my opponents have concluded they can’t beat me or remove me from office themselves…” 

Nicola Sturgeon in an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg

But Nicola Sturgeon quickly moved to quash the speculation.

“… so they’re kind of crossing their fingers and hoping that I’ll remove myself from office but they’re going to be really disappointed because I’m going to be around a lot longer.”

Nicola Sturgeon in an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg

There’s no doubt that Nicola Sturgeon remains a driving force behind Scotland’s push for independence.

Many nationalists will want to see her stay at the helm until a second referendum is locked in but she has her enemies too, the SNP are still divided over which path to take to achieve independence. 

Boris Johnson – as Prime Minister of the UK – has said he won’t support another referendum but Nicola Sturgeon has dared him to stop her.  Tough talking… but under current arrangements, the Scottish parliament can’t proceed with a meaningful referendum without the express approval of the UK parliament.    

Expect to hear more – a lot more – about Scottish independence.

“Unit then, happy campaigning… we have independence to win. Let’s get on and do that.”

Nicola Sturgeon speaking in a campaign video

There’s a huge amount at stake for Nicola Sturgeon, Boris Johnson – and all of us.

Today’s episode was written and produced by Imy Harper.