James Forsyth

Sturgeon’s rush for a referendum could backfire

Sturgeon's rush for a referendum could backfire
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The Holyrood election campaign kicks off with Nicola Sturgeon buoyed by James Hamilton’s report concluding that she did not break the ministerial code. Unionists in both London and Edinburgh have been taken aback by how decisively Hamilton stated that Sturgeon had not broken the code. But, as I say in the magazine this week, it would be wrong to think Sturgeon hasn’t been damaged by this whole business. 

The independence bill her government published this week was also a misjudgement. It states that the referendum will be held in the first half of the next Scottish parliament. In other words, before November 2023. This is a more aggressive timetable than public opinion is comfortable with. Polling for the think tank Onward shows that more voters want a referendum after 2027 — or never — than in the next two years. Voters feel that Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic should come first.

It is absurd to suggest that the after-effects of this virus will have been dealt with by November 2023. Two-thirds of disadvantaged pupils in Scotland were unable to do any schoolwork during lockdown. On the Scottish government’s own eight key diagnostics tests, the NHS waiting list is now more than 100,000 patients long, while the justice committee at Holyrood warns it could take a decade to clear the backlog in the courts. 

In the circumstances, the SNP’s demand for another referendum in the next two-and-a-half years shows the party’s warped priorities. It also enables the UK government to reject the demand on the grounds that now is not the time.

At the end of last year, an SNP majority looked so likely that some Unionists were urging the government to start work on a UK-wide Royal Commission on the constitution, so it couldn’t be dismissed as a panicked response to an SNP landslide. Now things are far less certain. Even if Sturgeon does win a pro-independence majority — perhaps propped up by the Scottish Greens — her haste to hold a referendum makes separation less likely.