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Can Nicola Sturgeon afford to gamble on a second independence referendum?

Can Nicola Sturgeon afford to gamble on a second independence referendum?

Sir Peter Blake's carpet at the Supreme Court

4 min read

Alongside the historical kitsch of refurbished wooden beams and a portrait of the Duke of Wellington, the most striking aspect of Room One of the Supreme Court is Sir Peter Blake’s bright, pop art carpet.

More famous for creating the iconic Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, Blake wove the Scottish thistle, a Welsh leek, England’s rose and blue flax for Northern Ireland, into a striking floor covering.

These threads binding the United Kingdom could unravel in this very room if it becomes the stage on which Boris Johnson attempts to strike down Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish independence referendum.

Legally, only Westminster can authorise a referendum - but 64 SNP and eight Green MSPs sworn into the sixth Scottish parliament with unimpeachable democratic credentials might now wish to disagree.

When it comes to a referendum “it is not a case of when - not if” a re-elected Sturgeon informed Johnson in their post-election catch-up phone call.

Yet no one is in a hurry, apart, maybe, from Alex Salmond, who scored nul points with his self-starter Alba party’s demand that independence negotiations begin immediately.

The election is one thing, but the polls, and advertising billboards bought up by a pro-Union campaign group, tell Sturgeon a referendum is not a priority even for SNP members. Who says the campaign has yet to start?

The SNP has a draft referendum bill to be introduced in Holyrood… oh maybe next Spring. The UK government will not oppose it…  well, not right now. 

It would be, everyone agrees, a bad look for Johnson to end up in the Supreme Court as a democracy denier.

“Goodbye Caledonia, hello Catalonia” is not a slogan which appeals to Sturgeon. 

But a Gina Miller figure could go to the same court and wreck a referendum, or the Lord Advocate, Scotland’s chief legal officer, may well advise Sturgeon a referendum bill is beyond the competence of the Holyrood parliament under the 1988 Scotland Act; in short, illegal.

“Goodbye Caledonia, hello Catalonia” is not a slogan which appeals to Sturgeon. 

While a legal quagmire awaits, the UK government strategy is to love bomb Scotland with direct funding from replacement European Union grants.

“They say referendum we say recovery; they say constitution, we say cash,” is the mantra according to one senior UK government figure. 

But being one short of an outright SNP majority is actually a constitutional sweet spot for the First Minister.

She can burnish her Covid recovery cred while buying the SNP time to reboot an independence case dismissed by one veteran No campaigner as “big rock candy mountain economics”.

Brexit, the material change nationalists cite as grounds to re-run the “once in a generation” poll, brings a new dynamic to the debate.

Britain’s borders now create problems, as does currency; Scotland’s projected deficit and money flows from Westminster to Scotland. 

Who blinks first in this game of Sturgeon bluff and Johnson bluster?

Conversely, the Tories may well wish to avoid a referendum under Johnson. Boris is constitutional kryptonite for the Scottish Tories, and stayed away from their election campaign, an error which weakens him when next he steps on Scottish ground. 

It leaves the PM unable to take credit for Douglas Ross’s 31 seat performance, equalling Ruth Davidson who comes south to be ennobled while the Moray MP heads north to the Scottish parliament as a list MSP.

Who blinks first in this game of Sturgeon bluff and Johnson bluster?

Ever cautious, Sturgeon wants the current 50 per cent support for independence to settle at more like 60 per cent before asking a question which could separate overlapping identities forever.
The second 1995 Quebec referendum, which French separatists lost on 49.2 per cent of the vote, is the razor-edged story arc overshadowing Scotland’s indyref2.

If Sturgeon gambles on a 50/50 chance and loses, it’s game over. 
  
So stalemate prevails. And the weave in that Supreme Court carpet may become very careworn before we see another referendum.   
 

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