On Tuesday the 28th of March 2017, the Scottish Government won a key vote on its road to a second independence referendum. The vote in the Scottish Parliament was based on whether the Scottish Government should officially ask the UK Government for a Section 30 order. This order would allow the Scottish Government to hold a legally binding referendum on Scottish independence.
The vote in Holyrood passed with 69 MSPs voting in favour and 59 voting against. It passed despite staunch opposition from the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats. The SNP, despite not holding a majority, managed to pass the motion thanks to the votes of the six MSPs from the Scottish Greens.
The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, will now write to the Prime Minister and formally request that Westminster grants Holyrood the powers required to hold a referendum by spring 2019.
Speaking after the vote, Nicola Sturgeon stated that:
“It is now the will of Scotland’s democratically elected national parliament that discussions should begin with the UK Government to enable an independence referendum to be held…Today’s vote must now be respected.”
She also warned that:
“The mandate for a referendum is beyond question. It would be democratically indefensible – and utterly unsustainable – to attempt to stand in the way of it.”
This warning comes after the Prime Minister ruled out granting the Scottish Government’s request for a section 30 order by stating that “now is not the time”. The statement was later clarified by David Mundell, the Secretary of State for Scotland, who said unequivocally that the UK Government will deny Ms. Sturgeon’s request. He stated:
“We won’t be entering any negotiations at all until the Brexit process is complete”
The Scottish Government and the UK Government are now in a political stalemate. The First Minister is insisting that the UK Government must respect the will of the Scottish Parliament by allowing Scotland a referendum before, or close after, the UK leaves the EU – thereby allowing Scotland a choice between a ‘hard Brexit’ or independence. The Prime Minister, however, maintains that an independence vote would be “unfair to the people of Scotland” before the Brexit negotiations are complete.
In recognition of this, Nicola Sturgeon has vowed that she will return to the Scottish Parliament “after the Easter recess” where she will set out the Scottish Government’s plans to “progress the will of the Scottish Parliament”.
What form these plans will take are not currently known. One option open to the Scottish Government is to hold an advisory referendum, however the results of this would not be legally binding. Such a move would also hold significant risks for the Scottish Government, as if they were to lose the advisory referendum, they would also lose their mandate to hold a legally binding one.
A second option is to call a snap-election and have the SNP run for Government based upon an explicit manifesto commitment of holding a second referendum. If the Scottish Government were then to win a majority, it would be very difficult for Westminster to then deny the Scottish people a vote. However, this is also extremely risky as if they were to fail to gain a majority then they would again lose their mandate.
More likely is that the First Minister will attempt to negotiate with the UK Government on the timing of an independence referendum. By compromising on when the referendum is held, and emphasising the perceived democratic injustice of denying the sovereign will of the Scottish Parliament, Ms. Sturgeon could secure a referendum on independence close to the date that the UK formally leaves the EU. However, it is important to note that negotiations can only happen if Theresa May is willing to enter into them.
What is known for sure, is that the question of independence will not simply disappear because the UK Government has kicked it into the long grass. The current situation is simply adding to the ongoing uncertainty with both sides appear to be growing increasingly frustrated.