Since 2016, she has claimed that Brexit has transformed the independence debate and provided the necessary “material change of circumstance” which she insists would justify a rerun referendum.
The decision of the UK electorate to leave the European Union, even as a majority of Scots voted Remain, gave Sturgeon the excuse she wanted to fire up her activist base and start demanding another referendum.
But if Brexit “changed everything”, it was hard to explain why the polls seemed to suggest that Scots themselves had not changed their minds, that a majority had decided they would rather live in a UK outside the EU than in a Scotland that was back inside the trading bloc.
Nevertheless, claiming a mandate from the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, at which her party fell short of an overall majority, the first minister started agitating for another Section 30 Order that would allow her government to start organizing the second “once in a generation” referendum in three years.
But Theresa May, who had replaced David Cameron in Number 10, said no. This was an extraordinary development; the nationalists were by now used to UK governments doing whatever they demanded, whether it was independence referendums or more devolved powers. The eras of Gordon Brown and Cameron had truly spoiled the nationalists. But now they came up against an unrelenting brick wall.
When Boris Johnson replaced May in 2019, the answer was the same: “Now is not the time.”
Uncertainty and division
This was a dilemma for Sturgeon. Faced with a series of domestic policy failures and scandals, she needed the distraction of another referendum. More importantly, she needed to make progress on this one iconic policy. Otherwise, what was the point of the SNP being in office at all? At the 2021 Holyrood elections, her party de ella again fell short of an overall majority, leading to an agreement with the independence-supporting Scottish Greens.
Last week, the prime minister capitulated to her own members. Despite having insisted for years that she would not endorse a “wildcat” or illegal referendum, she announced that she had set aside October 19, 2023, as the polling day for the next vote.
And, mindful of the limits of the Scottish Parliament to set policy in a matter reserved to Westminster, she announced that her plan would be referred to the Supreme Court.
If the court decided that the proposal for a referendum was ultra vires and beyond the legal scope of Holyrood, she would revert to Plan B: making the next UK general election a “de facto” referendum, which the SNP would use as a mandate to begin independence negotiations with the UK Government.
This is all thousands away from the statesmanlike, moderate language Sturgeon has tended to employ in recent years. She desperately wanted an official referendum endorsed by the UK because that would be the only route to international recognition of Scottish independence, including a future pathway to EU membership.
But such considerations are unimportant to too many of the First Minister’s activists, who would happily settle for a unilateral declaration of independence if that were the only way of breaking free from the UK.
In fact for many of them, that would be their preferred option.
But it’s now difficult to see a way ahead for Sturgeon. Although it is impossible to second guess the Supreme Court, judges are widely expected to veto her plans – especially since recent precedent has established that the Scottish Parliament cannot pass legislation that obliges, or even puts pressure on, the UK Government to act in a certain way.
But even if, somehow, the court approves a form of watered down plebiscite, the vast majority of pro-UK Scots will boycott it, rendering the result meaningless and relieving Westminster of any obligation even to acknowledge it has taken place.
And as for Plan B, does any party have the right to redefine what a general election is for? Who is to say why individual voters place an X in this or that box? This is a “strategy” that is barely worthy of the description.
Sturgeon’s chief complaint is that the UK Government is taking her at her word and refusing to endorse another referendum within the timescale normally accepted as a “generation”. But instead of acknowledging her powerlessness de ella to do anything about the constitutional framework that restricts her actions de ella, she has instead chosen to do what leaders should never do: she has decided to tell her supporters what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear.
The consequences for Scotland are another year to eighteen months of uncertainty and division. The consequences for the First Minister’s party, in the longer term at least, could be truly devastating.