LBC Views: What magic trick does Nicola Sturgeon have up her indyref sleeve?

14 June 2022, 20:10

"What magic trick does Nicola Sturgeon have up her sleeve?" asks Gina Davidson.
"What magic trick does Nicola Sturgeon have up her sleeve?" asks Gina Davidson. Picture: LBC

By Gina Davidson

The phoney war of independence began on June 24, 2016 and, nearly six years to the day, ended on June 14 2022.

Since the result of the Brexit vote - something which Nicola Sturgeon said fundamentally changed the status quo of the UK constitution - Scotland’s First Minister has been pledging and promising a second independence referendum.

Last year’s Holyrood elections gave her, she said, yet another mandate for a second official tilt at the constitution title - as did her co-operative agreement which took the pro indy Scottish Greens into government and ensured a built in majority.

Next year, 2023, was the deadline she gave herself - and a fortnight ago it was revealed that £20m had been set aside in the Scottish Government coffers for referendum spending.

All the signs were pointing in one direction: this time the SNP was serious about holding a second vote. And today the starting pistol was well and truly fired with the publication of a paper, Independence in the Modern World, with the snappy sub-title - Why Not Scotland?

Read more: Nicola Sturgeon will reveal legal course for indyref2 'within days'

Nicola Sturgeon is praying for legal enlightenment
Nicola Sturgeon is praying for legal enlightenment. Picture: Alamy

Nicola Sturgeon’s pitch was this - if other small European nations can make a good fist of it economically why should a stand alone Scotland be any different? The paper looks at GDP, wealth and poverty levels, gender pay gaps and social mobility, in counrties such as Denmark, Iceland, Ireland - and a host of others - and asks why would an independent Scotland be worse off than it is as part of the UK?

Now if you think it’s an argument you’ve heard before that’s because you have. The SNP has long looked at other small nations and said "this could be us Scotland!"

But things have changed according to Nicola Sturgeon since 2014 and the last indyref - and in the light of Brexit, the pandemic, the cost of living crisis - going it alone is the answer to a wealthier, healthier nation.

The stumbling block - and it is a huge one - is Boris Johnson and his refusal to engage with what Nicola Sturgeon calls the democratic argument of her mandate; a refusal that means no Section 30 Order, which means, in the vast majority of people's understanding of constitutional law, no referendum. At least not a legal one.

However Nicola Sturgeon says she is navigating her way through these choppy constitutional waters to get around that iceberg - she admitted there was little chance of Boris Johnson "melting" - but her confidence about having found some kind of legal loophole left many politicians and lawyers scratching their heads in mystification.

What magic trick she will pull off, just how she will hold a legally watertight referendum without "permission" and which would still be recognised by the UK government and on the international stage, we will find out within 16 days. That's when parliament breaks for summer recess and she says a statement will be made before then.

Of course critics of independence also point to Brexit and wonder why she would wish to double down on that for Scotland - and astonishingly Nicola Sturgeon today changed tack. Now she says it's Boris Johnson's mis-management of Brexit which has caused problems - not the actual leaving of the EU itself (though she stresses that rejoining would be top of the list of an independent Scotland).

So a hard border at Gretna would be the result? She wouldn't use the B word, but admitted customs regulations would be required. There was no shying away from that, no attempt to gloss over the challenges independence would bring and a paper on EU membership and trade will be forthcoming. There's a new hard-headed reality about this pitch.

Of course the new push heralded brickbats from opposition MSPs - Tory, Labour, LibDems all lined up to say this was just a distraction from a poor domestic record. How can a government which can't get a ferry built on time and within budget expect people to vote for independence went the mantra.

Nicola Sturgeon may waive away such questions, but they will be pertinent to anyone she wants to move from No to Yes - and the polls right now are not in her favour.

For now though, while the phoney war is over, we still wait for her next statement on just how she intends to square the legal circle of holding a lawful referendum without UK government support.

If you listen carefully you can hear the constitutional lawyers sharpening their quills already.