Euan McColm: Nicola Sturgeon has thrown down the gauntlet to Theresa May
The SNP leader may feel that she can use the impact of Brexit to her advantage.
The cheers were deafening. As Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced to the SNP conference that a bill for a second independence referendum would be published for consultation next week, the audience erupted.
This was precisely what the party faithful had longed to hear since the nationalists were defeated in September 2014. As far as SNP members were concerned, failure to win independence was merely a stumble on a long road. But Sturgeon was not addressing only those in the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow, today. She was speaking directly to Prime Minister Theresa May.
Yes, those in the hall will have heard the announcement of a second referendum bill but they may have missed the bigger picture. Since the UK voted to leave the EU in June, Sturgeon has made much of the fact that 62 per cent of Scots voted to remain. This outcome represented a “democratic deficit” and she would do all she could to protect Scotland’s place in Europe.
In truth, there is nothing Sturgeon can do to ensure Scotland, as part of the UK, remains a member of the EU. When the UK leaves, all of its constituent parts will leave. This is a simple, undeniable position that’s been rather muddied by SNP rhetoric in recent months.
The First Minister has, since June, repeatedly said that a second independence referendum is on the table. But her enthusiasm for this prospect has done nothing to increase support for the break-up of the UK among Scottish voters. More than half of Scots stubbornly refuse to get on-board the nationalist juggernaut.
In her speech in Glasgow, Sturgeon said publication of a referendum bill was designed to give Scots the opportunity to vote on independence before the UK departs from the EU. She was quite clear in her view that the prospect of “hard Brexit” would encourage a majority of Scots to back a Yes vote next time.
But things are not so straightforward. For one thing, an independent Scotland would not automatically become a member of the EU. It would have to apply to join and, as part of that process, would have to satisfy a number of requirements, such as adoption of the Euro. The same issues around currency and the economy that proved fatal to the nationalist case in 2014 remain unresolved.
However, Sturgeon may feel that she can use the impact of Brexit to her advantage and nudge the numbers far enough in her favour that a second referendum is a gamble worth taking.
And here’s where Prime Minister May comes in. Sturgeon has thrown down a gauntlet to the Prime Minister. What the First Minister wants is more powers for Scotland and the Brexit negotiations to come might help her win them.
Holding the threat of a second independence referendum over May, Sturgeon will demand the repatriation of a number of EU responsibilities to Scotland rather than Westminster. Expect the First Minister to make the case for powers over more than just Agriculture and Fisheries - and the money associated with these areas - to come to Scotland.
The Prime Minister will have to decide whether she is willing to risk a second independence referendum which, if it goes in the nationalists’ favour, would end her time at the head of the UK Government or whether making the Scottish Parliament more muscular might be a more prudent course of action.
The SNP’s new depute (it’s a Scottish thing) leader Angus Robertson MP - elected today to replace Stewart Hosie - will play the central role in arguing at Westminster for Brexit to lead to a more powerful Scottish Government. The Prime Minister would be wise not to underestimate his determination in these matters.
Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement of a new bill may not lead to a second independence referendum. But it certainly marks the start of a new constitutional battle with Westminster.
Picture by: John Linton/PA Wire/Press Association Images