The State of the Union: Sturgeon vs. May

Andy Goss
6 min readMar 13, 2017

She’s gone and done it. Nicola Sturgeon has handed Theresa May the ultimatum that we all knew was coming; give Scotland a different deal on Brexit or face a second independence referendum. But whilst Sturgeon’s intentions are clear, there are hurdles to be jumped before a referendum is set in stone:

The Unspoken Ultimatum

In theory only, Sturgeon’s speech was an ultimatum. She stressed she was ‘not turning [her] back on further discussions should the UK government change its mind’. Yet in the same statement she committed to seeking Scottish Parliament’s approval on securing a referendum by next week. Sturgeon is therefore confident that in the next week at least, the UK government will not change its mind on its approach to Brexit. Today’s speech was less an ultimatum then and more her setting out a formal timetable for a second Scottish independence referendum. The truth is, the real ultimatum was set the day after the EU referendum, when Sturgeon stated the result ‘represents a significant and a material change of the circumstances in which Scotland voted against independence in 2014’. A second referendum wasn’t mentioned but it was implied. Westminster was handed an unspoken ultimatum by Holyrood over 8 months ago. Theresa May will be acutely aware of this.

In stating she is in listening mode, Sturgeon has taken a gamble. Despite protestations to the contrary, her primary focus is to achieve an independent Scotland with full EU membership rather than remain part of the union with the compromise of a soft Brexit; independence is after all the SNP’s raison d’être. This particular roll of the dice however, is likely to pay off. May shows no sign of giving any ground on her hard Brexit stance. In a statement following Sturgeon’s speech, Number 10 made it clear that there will be no separate deal for Scotland. May herself was emphatic in her recent speech to the Scottish Conservative Conference, outlining a firmer commitment to unionism than her predecessor and reiterating a one-nation approach to Brexit. Heartfelt ideologies aside, realpolitik comes into play here too. If May concedes on a different deal for Scotland, then surely similar demands will be made in Northern Ireland. With the recent Assembly elections failing to deliver a unionist majority for the first time in its devolved history, May will not wish to hear emboldened nationalist voices demanding their own bespoke Brexit deal. Similarly, despite an overall vote to leave, staunch remainers in England and Wales will also be spurred on to lobby for their own concessions, with the Liberal Democrats and devolved government in London, likely to be at the front of that particular queue.

It is safe to say then, that an impasse has been reached. This will have been Sturgeon’s intended direction of travel since 24 June 2016. May though, has only recently realised Sturgeon isn’t calling her bluff, evidenced by her recently ramping up of unionist rhetoric at said Scottish Conservative Conference.

Making up the Numbers

Section 30 of the Scotland Act (1998) dictates that Sturgeon will need the approval of Scottish Parliament before she can formally request a referendum from Westminster and she has already signalled she intends to seek this next week. The SNP are a minority government in Holyrood and will need the support of the Scottish Green Party to secure a majority (the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have confirmed they will oppose the vote). Although Sturgeon has claimed otherwise, the SNP would have shored up the support of the Green’s prior to today’s important speech. Sure enough, shortly after the end of her speech, the Green’s confirmed as such via Twitter.

It’s a Question of Time

With a Scottish parliamentary majority in the bag then, Sturgeon will, again as per section 30 of the Scotland Act, formally request a referendum from the UK government. She arguably has a mandate do so. The SNP’s 2016 manifesto states ‘Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there a significant and material change in circumstances such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against [its] will’. The SNP emerged as the biggest party in the subsequent Scottish Parliamentary elections on the back of that manifesto. Whilst the SNP had a similar mandate that led to David Cameron agreeing to the first Independence Referendum in 2014, will Theresa May follow the lead of her predecessor? It’s hard to see how she can refuse. To deny Edinburgh the vote will undermine the sovereignty of Scottish Parliament. Whilst May was happy to champion the popular vote over Westminster’s sovereignty on Article 50, it is unlikely that she will want to fight another constitutional battle from the opposing side, placing the devolved Scottish government and its people as the political underdog. May will instead attempt to push the referendum back to after Brexit negotiations have been completed (post Spring 2019), allowing Scotland to vote on a final deal. Conversely, Sturgeon would prefer to have the referendum before Spring 2019, allowing Scotland’s decision to form part of the continued negotiations and final outcome.

The question then isn’t will there be a referendum. It’s when will there be one.

Second Time Lucky?

In 2014 Scotland voted 55% to 45% against independence. A BMG poll published today puts that figure at 52% to 48% against (when the ‘don’t knows’ have been removed). A year and a half is a very long time in politics and Sturgeon will be secretly hoping for a problematic round of Brexit negotiations to support her case. Whilst this will strengthen May’s resolve in not provide a running commentary on negotiations, May’s seemingly default mode of radio silence could come across as intransigence in the eyes of the Scottish electorate. The forthcoming Scottish local elections in May 2017, will now take on an added importance, with a strong SNP performance likely to be taken as a signal of an increased appetite for independence.

If Sturgeon was sensible, she should look to remainers outside of Scotland to shore up her support. Those who wish to retain an EU passport and are passionate enough to relocate to Scotland in advance of the referendum, could form a non-tartan army, who even if unable to vote, could be invaluable in helping get the vote out.

Labour’s role in all this remains unclear. Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, favours a federalised United Kingdom, offering Scotland with home rule of devolution-max (as do the Scottish Liberal Democrats). Jeremy Corbyn’s position however is less clear, having failed to endorse Dugdale’s vision at Scottish Labour Conference and more recently proffering a somewhat ambiguous view on Scottish independence in general. Labour’s diminished role in Scottish politics means they are unlikely to play such a key role as last time in the referendum campaign. Moreover, with the SNP’s continued dominance and the Conservatives now being the second largest party in Holyrood, the more nuanced argument of federalism will be lost during this campaign, with both parties hitting home their respective binary views of independence and unionism instead. Labour therefore needs to up its game if wants federalism to be taken seriously as a viable third option. This can only be achieved if the idea is adopted as policy at a national level.

For the time being, the state of union is a struggle between Sturgeon and May. With May’s decision following Sturgeon’s speech, to wait until the end of March 17 to trigger article 50 (it was widely expected to be triggered tomorrow), it would seem the SNP may secured that all important pre-emptive strike. May the battle commence.

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Andy Goss

Political Geek. Freelance Writer. Election Commentary/Analysis.