Will Nicola Sturgeon's Big Independence Gamble Pay Off?

The SNP leader plans to turn the next general election into a "de facto referendum" on breaking up the UK.
Nicola Sturgeon responds to the Supreme Court judgement.
Nicola Sturgeon responds to the Supreme Court judgement.
Jane Barlow via PA Wire/PA Images

Unlike her predecessor, Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon is not known as a gambler.

While Salmond loved nothing more than to roll the political dice, his former protege and one-time ally has always been far more cautious. Until now, that is.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to legislate for a second independence ruling without Westminster’s approval, Sturgeon confirmed her plan to bet the farm on black.

A special SNP conference will be held in the spring to decide the party’s next steps, she said. But her preference was clear: the next UK general election should be a “de facto” independence referendum in Scotland.

Under her plan, if at least 50% of voters back the SNP and other pro-independence parties, that would trigger negotiations with Westminster on Scotland’s exit from the UK.

As political gambles go, it’s a huge one, with no guarantee that the 50% threshold will be met - or that the UK government would even recognise it as a mandate for independence if it were.

“This is no longer about whether Scotland becomes independent, vital though that decision is,” Sturgeon told a press conference after the Supreme Court judgement.

“It is now more fundamental. It is now about whether or not we even have the basic democratic right to choose our own future.

“Indeed, from today, the independence movement is as much about democracy as it is about independence.”

Yet while Scottish public opinion on independence has not really shifted since the 2014 referendum, recent polling suggests Sturgeon’s latest plan for delivering it is unpopular with the electorate.

A Savanta ComRes poll in October found that just 32% of Scots thought it was “the right thing” to treat a UK general election as a de-facto independence referendum, with 55% opposed.

Writing in pro-independence paper The National, pollster Mark McGeoghegan, who is also an expert on separatist movements, said: “On current polling, the SNP – even with the votes of other pro-independence parties, like the Scottish Greens and Alba – would likely fall short.

“Even if they don’t, whether a pro-independence majority of votes is perceived as a mandate for independence is in doubt.”

He added: “The de-facto referendum may represent the SNP’s last roll of the die, but if it is, it looks like one the public opposes.”

“The de-facto referendum may represent the SNP’s last roll of the die, but if it is, it looks like one the public opposes.”

Another problem for Sturgeon is the fact that her own party is far from united behind her strategy.

Even those usually loyal to their leader believe she is taking an unnecessary risk, pointing out that were support for independence-supporting parties come up short of 50% in 2024, then the question will be off the table for a generation.

It is surely better, they argue, to continue building support for independence to the point where it would be politically impossible for Westminster to refuse indyref2.

SNP MP Stewart McDonald, one of Sturgeon’s biggest supporters at Westminster, made clear his own concerns about his leader’s strategy on Twitter.

The party, he said, must have a “robust debate” about its options before signing up to the Sturgeon plan.

He said: “Whatever mechanism we elect as a party to resolve this question ... must do what it says on the tin: it must be able to lead to independence if that’s what the people freely choose in a process that is legal, democratic and sound.”

Scotland remains evenly divided on the question of Scottish independence
Scotland remains evenly divided on the question of Scottish independence
Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

Both the Conservatives and Labour remain steadfastly opposed to a second independence referendum, arguing that politicians should be focused on tackling the cost of living crisis rather than more constitutional wrangling.

The pro-union parties will approach the next general election in Scotland as they would any other, presenting their policies on a range of issues other than Scottish independence.

They hope that most Scots will cast their votes on that basis as well, rather than on whether the UK should be broken up.

“There is a way to have a referendum and we know what it is because we had one,” a UK government source told HuffPost UK.

“If you strip away all the rhetoric, Sturgeon is accepting the political reality, which is that they need to increase support for independence, which is something they have singularly failed to do.

“Our focus is very much on what we’re doing to address issues that really matter to people, like rising energy bills, and how can we work with the Scottish government to achieve that.”

Sturgeon must hope that Scottish voters are ultimately convinced by her argument that the next election should be indyref2 in all but name - and back her calls for Scotland to go it alone.

If they don’t, a political career which has seen many notable victories will ultimately end in defeat.

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