Euan McColm: Nicola Sturgeon is wise to bide her time on independence issue

Written by Euan McColm on 11 January 2017 in Opinion

Ruling out a referendum this year showed Scottish First Minister content to let Westminster make her arguments for her 

AFTER more than two years of implying she was on the brink of calling a second independence referendum, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has backed down. The nudge-nudge-wink-wink about 'Indyref 2' has ceased. There will be no vote on the constitution in 2017.

The First Minister’s announcement on Monday that this was not to be the year of the second referendum may be read as a concession that she simply could not win one.

The evidence suggests that, if she were to call a referendum tomorrow, Sturgeon would crash to a devastating defeat. Polls have refused to shift in the pro-independence movement’s favour since the No campaign won by 55-45 in September 2014, and a majority of Scots say they don’t want another referendum.

Despite this, Sturgeon has maintained the facade that there’s momentum behind her cause; the slightest wrong move by Westminster would make independence inevitable.

The result of the EU referendum was supposed to convince unionists to change their minds. It has not done so.

Perhaps Monday’s announcement was inevitable; Sturgeon risked the accusation she was crying wolf if she had continued to hint at a referendum she had no intention of calling.

Unionists may be tempted to gloat. The First Minister has blinked. She knows she’s still in possession of a losing proposition.

But Sturgeon is no fool. The SNP has much to gain from her decision.

The UK political agenda this year will be dominated by Brexit. It is the big issue, made doubly fascinating by the government’s evident cluelessness about the way in which it should proceed.

Why would the First Minister wish to draw attention to the independence stand-off when chaos at Westminster tells a more helpful story?

Scottish voters are now divided over the constitution. Feelings remain strong on either side.

During this deadlock, Sturgeon has nothing to gain from pro-UK voters thinking about another referendum. All that will achieve is the entrenchment of positions. Scotland is not in the mood to chat about this, right now.

The First Minister needs those who voted No in 2014 to think about the sort of United Kingdom they are part of. She needs them to think not about her ambitions but about the Conservative government. She needs them to pay close attention to every cock-up and to listen to the hard Brexiteers of Little England.

Sturgeon needs those unionist voters to take in the full, spectacular incompetence of the Jeremy Corbyn project.

A year from now, Sturgeon may well be able accurately to describe a hard Brexit deal struck by a right wing Conservative Party that’s in no danger of losing power because the Labour Party is led by a buffoon.

Napoleon advised that one should never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake. Those unionists who think Sturgeon took some political damage on Monday should bear that in mind.

Sturgeon’s predecessor as First Minister, Alex Salmond, has suggested there should be a second independence referendum in the autumn of 2018. But, while it’s always a delight to hear from Salmond on what he'd do if he was still the boss, Sturgeon will not press the button on a second referendum until she is quite sure she will win it. She is far more likely to reach that point if pro-Union voters become so horrified by the state of Westminster that they simply cannot countenance Scotland’s continued participation.

Nicola Sturgeon has failed to turn the EU referendum result to the SNP’s advantage. Perhaps her opponents will do it for her.


About the author

Euan McColm is a columnist and leader writer who has held senior editorial positions on The Scotsman, The Daily Record and News of the World.

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