From independence to dogs and lampposts

By Campbell Gunn, 3x1 Strategic Adviser

The old adage – usually attributed to Harold Wilson, though he claimed that he didn’t recall actually using it – that a week is a long time in politics, has surely never been more true than in the past few days.

First, Nicola Sturgeon wrong-footed the body politic on Monday with her announcement that she would seek a Section 30 Order allowing the Scottish Government to hold a referendum on independence. A debate and vote on the issue - which she will win thanks to support from the Greens - will be held, she announced, next week.

Then on Thursday, as the First Minister was answering questions in the Holyrood chamber, Prime Minister Theresa May was in London rejecting the request before it had even been made.

That won’t stop next week’s vote, which will result in Ms Sturgeon writing to the Prime Minister asking permission to hold the referendum.

Ms May says no referendum should be held before the terms of Brexit are actually known. The First Minister responds by pointing out that she doesn’t propose holding it before autumn 2018. According to the Brexit timetable, that’s when the Brexit deal must be completed. The final six months of the two-year exit period, which starts this month, are set aside for ratification of the deal by both the UK Government and the EU.

In the midst of all this, on Wednesday, the annual Scottish Social Attitudes survey found that support for Scottish independence was at 46%. In their survey in 2012 when the last independence referendum campaign was launched, support was at a paltry 23%. The Yes campaign saw that increase to 45% by referendum day. So a base of 46% will be seen by independence supporters as a very good level from which to start.

So what happens now? Nicola Sturgeon will win next week’s vote, will write to Theresa May, and Ms May in turn will reject the request. Neither woman is likely to back down. So in reality we’re unlikely to have another poll on the First Minister’s timetable. However, for Nicola Sturgeon that may be no bad thing. Theresa May has not ruled out allowing a referendum at some time in the future. And the sight of a Conservative leader at Westminster, with a single MP north of the Border, dictating what the Scottish Government can and can’t do may only irritate Scots, and potentially increase the chances of a Yes vote when a poll is finally held.

The week also saw a screeching U-turn from the UK Government on one of the main planks of their Budget, as well as the biggest fine in history for a breach of the electoral rules at the last general election – things which would normally have kept political observers busy for weeks. Instead, they’ve been overshadowed, and almost ignored.

To top it all, we also learned that former Chancellor George Osborne is to become editor of the London Evening Standard. Being a sitting MP, that seems to make a mockery of the old adage that the relationship of a journalist to a politician should be that of a dog to a lamppost.

So look for a barn-storming speech from the SNP leader at her party’s spring conference in Aberdeen this weekend. These are often more like rallies than proper political conferences. The events of the last few days guarantee that will certainly be the case this weekend.