'Hell Will Freeze Over Before Boris Johnson Allows Another Scottish Referendum'

Nicola Sturgeon says her plans haven't changed, but Scottish nationalist hopes of a fresh vote next year are fading fast.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

In public at least, Nicola Sturgeon is insisting that another Scottish referendum will take place before the end of next year.

“My plans and my thinking hasn’t changed,” Scotland’s first minister said when asked last week whether the war in Ukraine meant another vote would have to be delayed.

Her view was backed up by Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, who said last weekend: “Is anybody suggesting that Putin should determine the timeline for an independence referendum in Scotland?”

The answer to that question is no, of course, but unfortunately for the SNP, Boris Johnson will determine when or if it happens, and he remains implacably opposed.

“Hell will freeze over before Boris gives them permission to hold another referendum,” one close ally of the prime minister said. “It’s just not going to happen on his watch.”

Here, HuffPost UK looks at the latest state of play and assesses the chances of the political deadlock being broken.

Where are we now?

At the Scottish parliament election last year, both the SNP and the Greens said that a vote for them was a vote for a second independence referendum.

Despite winning the largest share of the vote of the devolution era, the SNP fell one seat short of a majority. However, a deal was done which saw two Green MSPs become ministers, ensuring an insurmountable pro-independence voting bloc at Holyrood.

A Referendum Bill setting out the Scottish government’s plans for a fresh vote will be introduced at some point yet to be decided, and it is guaranteed to become law given the SNP/Green parliamentary majority.

Nicola Sturgeon would then challenge the UK government to either accept or reject the will of the Scottish parliament.

With Boris Johnson unwilling to give Holyrood the legal power to hold a referendum – as David Cameron did for the original indyref in 2014 – the stand-off could end up with the UK Supreme Court having to rule on Westminster’s ability to block another vote.

<strong>A Scottish independence demonstration at the Robert the Bruce statue at the Battle of Bannockburn site near Stirling.</strong>
A Scottish independence demonstration at the Robert the Bruce statue at the Battle of Bannockburn site near Stirling.
Andrew Milligan - PA Images via Getty Images

The dream will never die

Despite this, those close to Sturgeon insist she is serious about holding another referendum next year.

“The key point is that we have won mandate after mandate after mandate for another referendum,” said one MP. “How obvious does the public have to make it?

“The Conservatives go into every election saying vote for us to stop indyref2, and the people elect a majority of MSPs who support another referendum.

“I accept that Boris Johnson has the constitution on his side, but if we depart from the principle that the party of government should be able to implement its manifesto then we’re in a weird place.

“In terms of timing, I think 2023 is eminently doable. I don’t believe that the war in Ukraine means that we can’t have it next year.

“The first minister should proceed in the normal way, but we could be looking at it ending up in the courts. I think that would be unfortunate.”

The MP did, however, reject calls from some nationalists for a wildcat referendum to be held if the prime minister refuses to grant a so-called Section 30 order giving Holyrood the legal power to hold one.

“Without a Section 30 you can’t have a referendum,” they said. “It would be unconstitutional and illegal and I’m not interested in that and neither is the first minister.”

Polling problems

Boris Johnson can, however, point to the opinion polls to support his contention that now is not the time for another referendum.

A recent Savanta Comres survey showed that 59 per cent of Scots – including 43 per cent of SNP supporters – believe discussions about the timing of another vote should be put on hold because of the war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, a succession of polls have also shown that only a minority of Scots want another referendum in the near future.

Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “The people of Scotland have made it clear they do not want another divisive referendum on the break-up of the UK.

“The SNP is failing to respect that view, just like it failed to accept the decisive result in 2014.

“The fact the nationalists are brushing aside a pandemic and a major conflict within Europe while it pursues separation is irresponsible and totally wrong.”

Andrew Milligan via PA Wire/PA Images

Road to nowhere

Some nationalists suspect Sturgeon is simply stringing along the SNP faithful by continually promising that indyref2 is just around the corner while secretly having no desire to actually hold one.

Former SNP MP Kenny MacAskill, who defected to Alex Salmond’s Alba Party last year, said: “Sturgeon has done nothing to prepare for a referendum, even though the need for independence has never been greater.

“There isn’t going to be a referendum next year, but that doesn’t mean that our political leaders shouldn’t be taking steps to protect Scotland from austerity and the cost of living crisis.”

He added: “A referendum was a possibility had Sturgeon struck early, but now it’s quite clear that Johnson is not going to grant a Section 30 order.”

MacAskill said there should instead be a “Scottish independence convention” made up of MPs, MSPs and councillors which would then decide how to advance the case for breaking up the UK and enter into discussions with the government at Westminster.

‘Indyref2 is coming’

Sturgeon loyalists reject MacAskill’s analysis, insisting that Salmond’s party represent just 2 per cent of the nationalist movement.

A spokesperson for Sturgeon told HuffPost UK: “People have already decided there should be an independence referendum in last May’s Scottish parliament election, when the SNP was re-elected with the highest share of the vote of any party in the history of devolution, and which saw a record majority of pro-independence MSPs elected.

“For any UK government to try and block the will of the people by standing in the way of that cast-iron democratic mandate is simply unsustainable. The UK government knows this, which is why they are so busy preparing behind the scenes for a referendum they know is coming.”

Nevertheless, it’s true that in areas like pensions, the border with England, EU membership and what currency an independent Scotland would use, the SNP still have no real answers. It’s difficult to believe that this would be the case if we were really just 18 months out from another referendum.

And with the war in Ukraine redrawing the geopolitical map, there will be little international support for the break-up of a member of the UN Security Council and a key player in NATO, at least in the medium term.

After 15 years at the top of Scottish politics, Nicola Sturgeon is nearer the end of her career than the beginning. The prospect of her legacy being the delivery of an independent Scotland seems further away than ever.

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