Nicola Sturgeon’s declaration of intent to hold a second independence referendum next year, made in Edinburgh on Monday, presumed one of two responses. Neither harmed her cause. Either the government would acquiesce and Scotland’s first minister would have forced a huge concession from the prime minister, or Theresa May would refuse the request, thereby reinforcing the nationalist argument that Tories are determined to stifle Scotland’s voice. Either there would be a rerun of the 2014 vote or an aggravation of the grievance that helps make the case for a rerun.
Of two unappealing options, Mrs May has chosen the second, declaring on Thursday that “now is not the time” to embark on a referendum. The prime minister argues that the Brexit outcome will not be clear enough by then for Scots to make an informed judgment on whether the union is worth preserving. Ms Sturgeon’s rebuttal is that Mrs May’s own Brexit timetable requires clarity about a deal in time for ratification by the European parliament towards the end of 2018. If the MEPs can form a judgment, why not the Scots?
There is principle and low politics on both sides. Ms Sturgeon raises legitimate objections to the way the prime minister has unilaterally crafted a Brexit agenda to the taste of ultra-Eurosceptic English Tories, ignoring the majority view of Scotland. Mrs May is right that a campaign proposing to dissolve the union in parallel to Brexit talks would be worse than a distraction from European negotiations. It would raise unanswerable questions in continental capitals about the future of the British state. It would make the talks impossible.
Ms Sturgeon calculates that a hard Brexit presented as Westminster dictating terms to a captive Scotland will stoke support for independence. Mrs May reads the runes of public opinion differently, suspecting that a majority of Scots do not want to relive the turbulence of 2014 and want a devolved government that gets on with governing.
Conservatives also believe the arguments that won the last referendum are still persuasive – perhaps more so given that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to remain in the EU and would look doubly vulnerable outside two unions. The SNP concedes that Edinburgh would need some customised relationship with Brussels and struggles to articulate what that might be.
That was also true of the vote leave campaign. The emotional lure of “taking back control” beat all kinds of economic arguments. The absence of a credible plan was not an obstacle. Mrs May might be badly misjudging the mood, or at least the potential for the mood to shift abruptly if an ugly Brexit settlement contaminates the appeal of the union. Yet she had little choice but to reject a second referendum while negotiations last. She has staked everything on her capacity to deliver a deal that convinces voters their future outside the EU is safe in her hands. She could even appeal to the need to preserve the union as part of her case in the negotiations. A Scottish audience might be harder to please, but ultimately that risk is a subset of the wider gamble.
One way for the prime minister to improve her chances would be to engage with the substance of Ms Sturgeon’s complaint – the refusal to compromise on a hard Brexit. A majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU, but so did majorities in Northern Ireland, London, Liverpool and Manchester. So too did millions of UK citizens. The prime minister’s insensitivity to their fears does not just cause resentment in Scotland. But Scotland has a devolved government with the capacity to disrupt Mrs May’s plans and potentially force her to negotiate a Brexit that is not pure capitulation to the demands of Tory English nationalists. The prime minister should be aware when rebuffing the SNP that, on the terms of a Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon articulates concerns that resonate on both sides of the Scottish border.