Theresa May has just declared that ‘now is not the time’ for a Scottish independence referendum. Given that no referendum can take place without the UK government’s consent. May is effectively ruling it out whatever the Scottish Parliament decides next week.
Now, it is not a surprise that the UK government won’t let an independence referendum take place during the Brexit negotiations. Scottish voters can’t possibly make an informed decision until they know both the terms of the Brexit deal and what kind of relationship with the EU or the single market an independent Scotland could have. But what is new in May’s statement is her refusal to suggest when she might agree to a second independence referendum. When ITV’s Robert Peston tried to get her to clarify whether she was just ruling out a referendum until Brexit has actually taken place, he was just met with the answer that ‘now is not the time’.
Nicola Sturgeon has already taken to Twitter to attack May’s statement, saying that the Scottish government don’t want the referendum now ‘but when the terms of Brexit clear and before it is too late to choose an alternative path’. She continues that if the Tories refuse to agree a Section 30 order now, they ‘would effectively be blocking Scotland’s right to choose when the Brexit terms clear’. She claims that this would be ‘undemocratic’ and ‘proof positive that the Tories fear the verdict of the Scottish people’.
In the magazine this week, I write that Number 10 is taken with the idea that they would challenge Nicola Sturgeon to get a direct mandate for a new independence referendum in a post-Brexit Holyrood election, currently scheduled for 2021. The Tories calculate that in a Scottish Parliament election where the central issue was whether or not there should be another independence vote, the SNP and the Greens would struggle to win a majority of seats—ending the prospect of a second referendum. As one source says of this strategy, ‘'It is a risk, but it is less of a risk than having a second referendum.’