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by Jamie Cater 13th March, 2017

Indyref2 – there’s only one likely winner, for now

Scotland’s First Minister delivered the news that many north of the border has been waiting for this morning – that she wishes to hold a new referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country. Nicola Sturgeon’s call may initially seem like a bold one; while the SNP claimed in 2014 that the original referendum was a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity, the second defeat for those who see would surely put the question to bed for a generation, if not longer. Although the SNP retains something of a hegemony over Scottish politics, it does not have quite the dominant position it appeared to hold, having lost its majority in the Scottish Parliament last year, and Sturgeon leading the independence cause to another defeat could be expected to have serious implications for her party’s future.

Despite the clear risks associated with losing, demanding another referendum looks, at this stage, like a shrewd political move from the First Minister and she will feel confident about her prospects. Firstly, the decision on whether to hold a referendum lies not with Holyrood, but with Westminster. While the Prime Minister’s team has been quick to rule out any suggestion that they may grant the Scottish Government permission to hold the referendum, the possibility only makes Sturgeon and the SNP stronger in the medium term. Should the UK Government continue to refuse, this will serve only to reinforce the idea that politicians in London have disproportionate control over Scotland’s fate. The Government may be able to delay a referendum, but it is likely to have to yield to the political pressure from the SNP eventually.

The argument made by Sturgeon in her speech that ‘the option of no change is no longer available’ is a compelling one in light of the Brexit debate, and instantly puts the No camp in a weaker position than it was in 2014, which adds further temptation for Westminster to try to delay a vote. No longer able to campaign for maintaining a successful and historic status quo with an exit from the EU looming for a country that voted to remain, those opposing independence will have to provide new reasons why Scotland is stronger as part of the UK. There will undoubtedly be scepticism over whether Sturgeon’s claims that Scotland can retain its membership of the EU and the Single Market but, as the vote for the UK to leave the EU showed, voters will not necessarily be swayed by rational arguments in a debate in which passions run so high on both sides.

The No campaign is likely to be structurally weaker as well as ideologically. The continuing weakness of Scottish Labour since the first referendum, combined with Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent insouciance over the weekend when confronted with the idea of a fresh vote, point towards the major pro-union parties not sharing a platform in the same way that they did as part of the Better Together campaign. While Better Together may have been imperfect as an organisation, there can be little doubt that it managed to put its case clearly and effectively. Such a forceful case is unlikely to be made by Labour this time around; it will be the Scottish Conservatives rather than a cross-party effort spearheading the pro-union fight. In the post-Brexit world, it is not clear that either party now has either the arguments or the individual credibility and support as institutions to persuade the Scottish electorate a second time.

All of this means that referendum or no referendum, Nicola Sturgeon’s position has only been strengthened for now. The longer Downing Street delays a vote, the more credence it gives to the First Minister’s argument that Westminster is frustrating the will of the Scottish people. It is true that pro-independence forces will also have much to do to convince Scotland to change its verdict, but when – rather than if – Downing Street grants the referendum, this time it will surely be the Yes campaign’s vote to lose.

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