There were emotional scenes in the hall when Scotland’s First Minister and Leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, announced to the party’s annual conference that a Bill for a second independence referendum would be published for consultation in the coming week.
A huge initial cheer gave way to a prolonged standing ovation, with some delegates hugging each other and celebrating wildly. However, there also seems to be a degree of pragmatism amongst most in the party that this is their last chance to achieve what has been a lifelong goal for many members – they know that if they lose two referendums then there is no coming back.
While the headline news from the Scottish National Party’s 82nd annual conference is undoubtedly the announcement of the new independence referendum Bill, some have tempered enthusiasm somewhat by highlighting the lack of substantial commitment to a timeline. Other commentators have suggested that the move was designed to placate hard-core nationalists who want to see a second independence ASAP, while also simultaneously buying the First Minister some time.
Beneath the passionate and powerful rhetoric all Nicola Sturgeon committed to was a public consultation on a draft Bill to hold a second independence referendum – otherwise known as IndyRef2. No further timescales nor details were provided.
In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote Ms Sturgeon said that IndyRef2 was ‘highly likely’, so the announcement of a consultation was hardly a revelation. Arguably of more significance was the FM’s pledge to ensure that Scotland stays at ‘the heart of Europe’ whether inside or outside the UK. Ms Sturgeon has declared her intention to ensure that Scotland remains within the single market even if the rest of the UK leaves, stating that 300,000 Scottish jobs were dependent upon access to single market and citing the examples of Norway and Iceland.
She also confirmed that SNP MPs will vote against the Brexit Bill next year, reflecting the 62% of Scots who voted to Remain.
Overall Ms Sturgeon is doing her utmost to find the right balance between pragmatism and passion – placating both those in the party who are anxious to see IndyRef2 happen ASAP and those who only want one held when victory is guaranteed.
The situation is increasingly challenging for her and her colleagues as the polls show little or no increase in support for independence despite the UK’s decision to leave the EU, withmany members and supporters growing impatient. Brexit has provided an added complication as unless Scotland votes for independence in Spring 2017 it unlikely negotiations could be finalised before Brexit is completed, raising the possibility that Scotland could be stranded outside of both the UK and EU – an unpopular scenario for most Scots.
The First Minister is going to great lengths to show that she is exploring all avenues to keep Scotland in the single market as part of the UK so that she can present independence as the only option if she is unsuccessful. She knows that a second referendum on Scotland’s independence is likely her last opportunity and she is far too canny to waste that chance if she doesn’t think she’ll win.