Trench combat in the battle of governments’ mandates

Slight shift from Sturgeon, but stalemate continues over second independence referendum.

When the SNP leader addressed party members this morning there was really only one question that journalists wanted to ask: now that the Prime Minister has said no to indyref2, what’s your plan B?

Some within the broader independence movement want a defiant two fingers waved in the direction of Westminster and for the Scottish Parliament to organise its own indyref poll, something that Nicola Sturgeon has always opposed.

Well today, in a clear nod to the exasperation of many in the independence ranks, she said this on the proposition that the Scottish Parliament should organise a new poll: “Now, should the UK Government continue to deny Scotland’s right to choose, we may reach the point where it is necessary for this issue to be tested. I am not ruling that out.”

So, on the issue of a Holyrood poll on independence, the line yesterday was pretty emphatically ‘no’. Today, to borrow a line from a Scottish King, it is ‘mibbies aye, mibbies naw’.

This should not be seen as a charge in the direction of a new poll. The First Minister repeated the arguments against it this morning; it would be the subject of legal challenge and could be struck down by the courts before it even happened. It would in all likelihood be seen as a wildcat referendum and would therefore not be recognised internationally. Above all it could actually set back the cause it is meant to deliver.

There were other announcements in the speech today, all aimed at bolstering the case for independence, from a convened constitutional convention to frame a new claim of right to publishing further work aimed at addressing the concerns of voters on further change.

The electoral commission will also be asked to re-test the question put to voters in 2014: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

During the election Nicola Sturgeon was hounded with the question, what’s your Plan B? After today, the question is when she will rule IN a consultative poll?’. On that she will do as she has done so often in the last three-and-a-half years, she will play for time.

Ever since the vote to leave the EU, the main feature of Nicola Sturgeon’s tactics has been to desist from playing her hand on the issue of ‘what next?’. Definitive answers, after all, crystallise positions, always a danger when uncertainty abounds.

She played for time on arguing for a second European referendum, initially dancing round the issue. She then backed it but then played for time on demanding the power to hold a second independence referendum. She will now play for time on the issue of definitively calling for a consultative poll.

Despite the intriguing news lines from this speech, the hard reality is that there is nothing the First Minister can do to force a change of mind in the Prime Minister. They will continue in a double act of mutual outrage, she that he is denying the will of the people, he that she won’t accept the will as expressed in 2014.

In short, the stand-off without end continues, all to the massive frustration of the Yes movement’s foot soldiers. They might take comfort from a change of position on a consultative poll but in reality it remains some way off.

When the headlines from this speech are written and when the commentariat pour over the details and analyse it to death, a simple reality stands out above all else. There is no simple answer to the question, what next?

Enoch Powell, who coined the phrase the ‘West Lothian Question’, also once memorably said that “power devolved is power retained”. Nicola Sturgeon is living with the reality of that constitutional fact.

Today, a new line, but one which was born more out of a change of emphasis than substance in the Scottish Government’s strategic thinking. It is also a day when the politics curiously are unaltered.

They remain in the same stalemate as they were before the speech was made. It’s trench combat in the battle of the mandates. 2020 looks like being a year when the guns are never silent, when a truce is all but impossible as the recrimination becomes a war without end.