The Scottish Government appears to be proceeding on the assumption that there will still be a Scottish Parliament in the “latter half” of 2020. There can’t be many politically aware people in Scotland who consider that a safe assumption.
But I use the word “appears” advisedly. Because everything we know about the First Minister and her team tells us that they are not the kind of people who make rash assumptions. They are, however, the kind of astute political operators who recognise the importance of keeping their options open.
Nicola Sturgeon’s talk of a new referendum sometime in the second half of next year jarred with more than a few commentators. It’s not that this degree of specificity on timing was unexpected. The vagueness and ambiguity couldn’t go on much longer. In truth, Ms Sturgeon’s timing is probably perfect. She has chosen just the right moment to give some definition to the time-frame for a new referendum. We now have an approximate end point well ahead of the next Scottish general election in 2021. Nothing set in stone, of course. Remember those options and the need to keep them open.
The way this time-frame has been presented, the First Minister could set a date beyond the latter half of 2020. But that was always unlikely anyway as this would risk a clash with campaigning for the Holyrood elections in 2021. What is vastly more significant is the fact that the time-frame as stated leaves total flexibility to schedule the referendum earlier – at any point between the passing of the legislation and autumn 2020. This crucial option has been kept open.
It would surprise no-one who has considered the constitutional implications of Brexit and the ‘mood’ of the British political elite if the date for the new referendum was to be in September 2019. British Nationalists will foam and splutter, insisting that Nicola Sturgeon had ‘promised’ the referendum wouldn’t be held before late 2020. But British Nationalists will always misrepresent the facts in this way. Just as they will always foam and splutter.
The same political acuity which we see in the careful crafted statements and the keeping open of options can be detected in the wording of the Referendums (Scotland) Bill. There is purpose in making the legislation broad – relating to plebiscites in general rather than just the new independence referendum. There is purpose in defining the territory on which legal battle with the British government will be joined. There is purpose in drafting the legislation in such a way as to allow concession to parliamentary allies. This is some smart politicking!
There has been a deal of frustration with Nicola Sturgeon of late. Many in the Yes movement – myself included – have found cause to criticise her. But nobody, I’m sure, seriously doubted our First Minister’s ability. My sense is that the days of frustration are over. The Referendum Bill marks, not a change of direction, but a change of gear. The fight is on. And Nicola needs every bit of support the Yes movement can provide.
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