Iain Macwhirter: Will the independence referendum actually be held by Nicola Sturgeon in 2021?


In Scottish politics in 2021, there is only one question that matters: Is there going to be a set date for Indyref2? And indeed, last year, and the year before that, I said something really similar. Since Nicola Sturgeon began promising it, the non-appearance of the independence referendum has been the major shaggy dog tale of the last five years.

There were a number of predictions of a replay after the Brexit referendum “changed the material circumstances” and, in the opinion of Nicola Sturgeon, rendered the 2014 independence referendum null and void. “I am determined,” she told the SNP conference in October 2016, “that Scotland will have the opportunity to reconsider the question of independence and to do so before the UK leaves the EU.” A new independence referendum bill was then written.

In March 2017, the day before Parliament passed Article 50 to leave the EU, Westminster’s agreement to hold a referendum on Scottish independence was officially demanded by the First Minister. “Now is not the time.” commented Theresa May. In the ensuing 2017 snap election, the SNP lost a third of its seats.

Undaunted, a “new timetable” for Indyref 2, now scheduled for fall 2018, was unveiled. She shifted the timeline to fall 2019 when that did not happen, but the SNP moved to endorse a People’s Vote for Brexit instead of Indyref2 before that deadline. That also didn’t happen. In fact, in the December 2019 general election, the People’s Vote turned into a Tory landslide, with a victorious Boris Johnson declaring that he was now a Union minister and would oppose a “a generation.” Scottish independence referendum.

In the first half of the current Scottish electoral term – sometime around 2023 – Sturgeon’s latest prediction calls for a referendum. You would assume that independence supporters might have lost hope after all these defeats – but far from it. Support for independence has finally increased after every missed deadline.

More people than ever are persuaded that an independent nation should be Scotland. Some 13 polls have shown a majority in favor of Yes, hitting a high of 58 percent in mid-December in a Savanta ComRes survey.

Of course, the excluded polls are not known, and all the latest polls were conducted in the shadow of Brexit and, most recently, the pandemic. It is difficult to tell how much of this is real independence support and how much is due to the hatred of Boris Johnson and Brexit. Any objective examination of the results of the survey, however, will have to assume that freedom is becoming the firm will of the Scottish electorate steadily.

This does not mean that it is clear to hold a referendum, or even that it is likely to happen. Personally, in the next decade, I think the prospects of a legally binding referendum are very slim. That’s because, despite losing some Scottish MPs in 2019, the Conservatives now have a very large majority in Westminster.

Triumphant after his Brexit contract, Boris Johnson would say that there is no reason for holding a “divisive” referendum to break up the United Kingdom. The U.K. at that very moment. After the twin shocks of Covid and Brexit, they are going through the dynamic process of reconstruction.

This view is also held by the Labour Party chairman, Sir Keir Starmer. Instead of a referendum, he promises more devolution and has hired as a frontrunner one of the stars of the 2014 Closer Together movement, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. That’s the surest indication that, unlike Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer isn’t ready to flirt with freedom.

The possibility of Westminster agreeing to a legally binding referendum on Scottish independence is slim even if the SNP wins the predicted landslide in May’s Scottish elections.

Nor will there be much support for Scottish independence in Brussels now that a Brexit deal is in effect. In order to discredit Brexit, the lawmakers in the European Parliament who said they had changed their minds on Scottish independence were mainly playing a political game. Countries such as France and Spain remain strongly opposed to “separatism” and will not encourage Brussels to intervene in a country which is no longer part of the European Union’s internal policy.

Nicola Sturgeon has always said that freedom is independence.


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