What has Nicola Sturgeon announced today?

The First Minister announced this morning that next week she will seek the consent of the Scottish Parliament to negotiate a ‘Section 30’ agreement with the UK Government which would give Holyrood the power to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence.

What is Section 30?

This refers to Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998. It is the legislative mechanism by which the Scottish Parliament may be granted the authority to legislate on matters which are ‘reserved’ to the Westminster Parliament. As the Union is a reserved matter, a Section 30 order is required to give Holyrood the power to hold a referendum on independence. For the 2014 referendum, the Section 30 order was enshrined in the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’ signed by the UK and Scottish Governments, which granted the Scottish Parliament a time-limited right to hold a single question referendum on independence.

Will Holyrood vote to give Nicola Sturgeon the authority to seek a Section 30 order?

The SNP does not have an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, having fallen two seats short of the 65 required for a majority in 2016. However there is a pro-independence majority in Holyrood, with the Scottish Greens – who have six seats – favouring independence for Scotland. It is therefore likely that the First Minister will be given consent by the Scottish Parliament to seek the Section 30 order.

Will the UK Government be willing to agree to a Section 30 order?

In order for a Section 30 order to be granted, it must be approved by both Houses of Parliament in Westminster. So Theresa May must first decide whether she is willing in principle to agree to a Section 30 order.* If she is, she must then seek the authority of Parliament to enter into this agreement. While there is little support in Westminster for a second referendum outside of the 56 pro-independence Scottish MPs (and their friends in Plaid Cymru), whether the major UK parties would actively block a referendum is another question. To do so would run the risk of fuelling support for independence if ‘Westminster’ was seen to be frustrating the will of the democratically elected Scottish Government. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said that Labour opposes a second referendum and will vote against it at Holyrood – however if it is backed by the Scottish Parliament, he says Labour “will not block that democratic decision at Westminster”.

*Update – On Thursday, Theresa May indicated that “now is not the time” to divert attention towards a Scottish referendum and appeared to rule out agreeing to such a vote until after Brexit has been formalised. Her Scottish Secretary David Mundell and Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson gave a joint press conference in which they rejected the timetable set out by the Scottish Government and said the UK Government would not be entering talks about a Section 30 agreement.

Does the First Minister have a mandate to hold a second referendum?

Nicola Sturgeon believes that she has a clear mandate for a second referendum on the basis that her party’s manifesto in 2016 stated that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold a second referendum “if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.” Given that Scotland voted by 62% – 38% in favour of remaining in the European Union, Sturgeon argues that this criteria has been met and that she has a clear mandate to seek a second referendum. However, those seeking to deny this mandate could point to the fact that, unlike in 2011, the SNP did not secure an overall majority on this manifesto. Nevertheless, to use this rationale to obstruct a referendum would carry significant political risk, as outlined above.

When would a second independence referendum take place?

On the timetable set out by Nicola Sturgeon today, the SNP would seek to hold the referendum at a point by which enough is known about the likely nature of the UK’s future relationship with the European Union to enable to make an informed decision, but early enough to enable Scotland to choose a different path before Brexit takes effect. On the current expectations of the Brexit timetable, she therefore envisages that the referendum would take place between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019. However the timing is likely to prove one of the most contentious issues: the expectation is that Theresa May will not seek to block a referendum from taking place altogether, but that she is likely to be unwilling to agree to a referendum that takes place before Brexit occurs. This would point to a referendum taking place sometime after March 2019, when the two-year Article 50 process is due to conclude.

Might the second independence referendum still be avoided?

There are two principle means by which this referendum may not take place: firstly, if consent is blocked by either the Holyrood or Westminster Parliaments; or secondly, if the Scottish Government’s demands on a special status for Scotland in relation to the European Union, as set out in the Scottish Government’s ‘Scotland’s Place in Europepaper, are met. At the heart of that paper is a determination to maintain Scotland’s place inside the European Single Market, with Nicola Sturgeon writing that a “hard Brexit” would “severely damage Scotland’s economic, social and cultural interests”. However she said today that, despite publishing that paper in “good faith”, there has been no movement from Westminster, which has been a “brick wall of intransigence”. Barring any Parliamentary obstacles therefore, it seems very likely that we are headed towards a second independence referendum – the key question being when this will take place.

What is the current level of support for independence?

Recent polling on Scottish independence continues to show a very tight race, with the most recent Ipsos MORI poll for STV putting public opinion at precisely 50/50 after Don’t Knows were excluded. On balance however, the majority of recent polls continue to place support for remaining in the UK ahead of support for independence.


Main image: Nicola Sturgeon, by Kenneth Halley licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0