The déjà vu was palpable on Wednesday afternoon when the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, outlined a timetable for a proposed second referendum on independence to the Scottish Parliament. Two years ago, she had made an almost identical announcement and at that time, it seemed, albeit briefly, like it would be a real possibility. Then, a month later, Theresa May upset Sturgeon’s plans by calling a snap general election, which we all know didn’t exactly go to plan, either.
A few days after Sturgeon’s 2017 announcement, I wrote an article for this site in which I rather unimaginatively concluded that ‘only time would tell’ whether the First Minister would be successful. She held a mixed deck of cards: strong personal popularity and considerable goodwill from her large and dynamic party, but also the potentially difficult task of staging a plebiscite in the middle of the Brexit negotiations, which I rather naively predicted might be ‘messy.’
Even the most imaginative members of the SNP, nor anyone else, for that matter, could have predicted the nature of the mess which would ensue. Around the same time Sturgeon was making her announcement on Wednesday, the 1922 Committee convened to discuss some goalpost-rearranging proposals to dump the Prime Minister six months ahead of the time the rules currently allow, revealing the extent of the strain to which May subjects, well, almost everything she touches.
Astonishingly for a party that has now been in government for as long as New Labour was, the SNP continue to enjoy unprecedented political support. The initiative, however, has slipped out of their hands since 2014. In the summer of that year, they had everything their way – a referendum they’d asked for taking place without many distractions, and Westminster leaders Cameron, Clegg, and Miliband (remember them?) scrambling up to the capital of a country it seemed like they were about to lose. Now, however, the Scottish Nationalists can no longer count on being the primary concern of the Prime Minister of the day.
Sturgeon has the additional problem of being a sensible leader dealing with opponents whose sense of reality diminishes on a daily basis. She knows she must deliver on her promise at some point, but is finding it almost impossible to chart a course when the issue which triggered her call for a referendum in the first place, Brexit, is proving quite as messy as it is. The precious time May does not deserve but is continually granted, either by generous EU negotiating partners or incompetent Labour opponents, is less time for Sturgeon.
The First Minister has two years until the Scottish Parliament election in 2021. Not only will her current mandate for a second plebiscite expire, but it is quite likely that the election will produce a ‘unionist majority’ in which Sturgeon is still First Minister but would not be able to pass a new motion. We’re not talking about the kind of defeats May has endured, but it would mean that Sturgeon, at least on independence, would be in office but not in power.
There are caveats to this. Sturgeon is cautious but she is also bold. She may decide to go for her referendum before 2021 and hope for the best. Additionally, Theresa May’s odious trait of destroying political precedents may encourage Sturgeon to quietly ignore mandates and majorities given that her counterpart in Downing Street doesn’t give a damn about them herself. How willing would Sturgeon be to mimic May just to break free of her own least-favourite union?
I was out with friends from university the evening Sturgeon made her non-announcement. A couple of them had been Yes voters in 2014, one of them in particular bragging about how he used to troll unionist voters online. Not very surprising, given how vicious that campaign had in some respects been, but I do remember being surprised at how pessimistic he was about Sturgeon's chances. Not only would she probably not get her vote, my drinking pal predicted, but even if she did, she'd lose it and be forced to resign.
On one point we did agree: any new vote will not be the same as the last one. I think this is true for many reasons, not just because referendum campaigns seem to learn from previous ones, noticeable in the way 2016's Vote Leave denounced David Cameron's message as 'Project Fear,' a phrase coined in 2014's Scotland, and in how Messrs Johnson and Gove understood the importance of deliberately vague proposals, having concluded the SNP shot themselves in the foot with a massive manifesto on which their opponents could feast.
This is the kind of discussion that is going on while unionists and nationalists alike - if they must be divided in that way - wait for something to happen. A lot has changed in the last two years. Even more has changed in the last five. Strangely, however, on this issue, all that can be stated with any confidence is how uncertain we all are. Only time will tell.