Since the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU, it has been a question of “when” rather than “if” we would see a second Scottish independence referendum. Those who declared that a second poll was not inevitable have not been listening to politics north of the border for years.
The EU referendum result – a clear majority of Scots voted to stick with Brussels – was exactly the point of difference the SNP wanted to see. There had always been that “sense” that Scotland was more pro-EU. The 2016 vote provided the clear evidence for it.
In the day job, in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, I found myself sitting down with the SNP talking to them about their plans to stay in the Single Market. The City and international investors were listening carefully. But within weeks it became clear that – despite some warm words in Brussels – the “Barroso doctrine” would continue to apply. An independent Scotland would have to apply for membership as an independent country.
While that answer may not have been to the SNP’s liking, it provided the catalyst for the announcement by Nicola Sturgeon to go for Indyref2. While there has been intense dialogue between Edinburgh and London, on both sides it has been a case of shadow boxing until this moment.
And as I write, markets have barely moved as a result. This sense of inevitability has been there for business for months now. Markets have been better predictors than politicians this time round.
So upfront the key question will be the date of the poll, with the SNP keen to have the vote early in autumn 2018 when the headlines rage about Brexit negotiations and while the Westminster government is least able to fight two battles at once. Pro-Union campaigners are likely to want to have a longer fight.
The smart play may be for Theresa May to say “up to you” if you still want to call a vote post the Brexit deal. If the UK government secures a deal which looks pretty reasonable on free trade and market access, many worries may ease back, and the Indyref bid may look opportunistic to many Scots.
The first minister’s logic this week was that voters in Scotland should have the ability to take into account the final deal from the EU. The argument for independence only really grows if the EU deal goes badly? It is a gamble.
The next question will be about the “question” itself. What choice will Scots voters be faced with? The Electoral Commission intervened in the EU referendum to remove the potential for voter bias towards “Yes”, and replacing it with a “Remain” or “Leave” option. I expect the UK government to fight much harder over the question posed this time round.
Finally, some of the demographics of Yes and No voters from the 2014 vote appear to have changed in current polling, with many pro-EU No voters switching allegiance to Yes and pro-Leave former Yes voters changing to support a Unionist position.
One thing I know for sure is the 2018 or 2019 Indyref2 campaign will be different. It will be harder for both sides this time. There will need to be new pro-Union leaders – step forward Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson? The SNP need detailed, credible answers on the economy, on the currency and on pensions – the consistent top three issues in 2014 have not changed. On the other side Project Fear economics misses the zeitgeist of modern Scotland. It misses the mood of modern politics.
Did the SNP blink first? Or was Westminster caught flat footed this week? Whatever the judgement, with current polls showing a 50:50 split, let battle commence – again!