In a speech on Friday to mark the first anniversary of last year’s independence referendum, Scotland’s first minister will warn Cameron that the future of the UK depends on his government’s willingness to change tack and to listen to the 56 SNP MPs now sitting in the Commons.
“Right now, you are living on borrowed time,” Sturgeon is due to say, in a clear hint that the SNP believes its chances of winning a second referendum hinge on building up resentment against the UK government.
“If you continue to ignore Scotland’s voice, if you continue to disrespect the choice that people across this country made in May, more and more people will conclude that Westminster simply can’t deliver for Scotland.”
Cameron, however, dismissed her challenge. The prime minister said the nationalist quest for separation was an “obsession” that ignored the clear and decisive vote in last year’s referendum for Scotland to remain part of the UK with a strong Scottish parliament.
A year ago, the historic independence referendum delivered a clear result for Scotland remaining in the union – by 55% to 45%. But polls now put backing for a yes vote as high as 55%, and suggest that support for the SNP is above 60% – increasing the pressure on Sturgeon to clarify her government’s position if there were to be a rerun of the vote.
Cameron sought to bolster his point by disclosing that he will strengthen the legal and constitutional protections for the Scottish parliament and the Scottish government by making it impossible for Holyrood to be abolished by Westminster – a technical possibility under current statutes.
“One year ago Scotland’s majority spoke,” Cameron said on the eve of the anniversary. “More Scots voted to keep our kingdom united than have ever voted for any party in any election in Scottish history.
“[We] listened. So let me be crystal clear: Scottish devolution is woven into the very fabric of our United Kingdom. We will table an amendment to the Scotland bill so there is absolutely no doubt: Holyrood is here to stay.”
Sturgeon’s anniversary ultimatum was tempered by the admission that she did not yet see a case for staging a quick second referendum. She confirmed that the SNP manifesto for next May’s Holyrood elections would only set out when a rerun “might be appropriate, some time in the future” rather than commit her party to a fixed timetable.
A further referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future could only take place with the authority of the Commons.
Whitehall sources said the UK government would now amend clause 1 of the Scotland bill to make it impossible for Holyrood to be closed down without backing from a Scottish referendum – an option proposed by MSPs in Edinburgh. It was a “symbolic gesture” to prove that Westminster recognised that “the Scottish parliament is part of the UK’s constitutional and parliamentary fixtures”.
While the latest polls suggest the SNP’s popularity has peaked and may be dipping, a series of opinion surveys nevertheless consistently put the SNP at over 50%. And support for independence is at its highest yet. Prof John Curtice, from the Scottish Centre for Social Research, said the average of the five polls puts the yes and no votes split 50/50.
Two of the last five polls testing opinion on independence put a yes vote ahead, with one at 55% for yes and another at 53% after excluding don’t knows. But the other three show no ahead with 51%-53% support.
That increases the internal pressure on Sturgeon from party activists and particularly from Alex Salmond. The former SNP leader, who isstill a talismanic figure for many in the party, has been pressing the case for a second referendum and appears to be ignoring Sturgeon’s far more cautious stance.
He claimed on Thursday that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader increased the chances of a second vote because Labour’s divisions would grow, making another Tory victory in 2020 more likely.
“Support for independence is rising further than the high-water mark of last year,” Salmond said, adding: “There is now a much more compressed timescale in my opinion.”
His triggers included the UK parties breaking their “vow” on more powers last September, UK spending cuts, the EU referendum and a divided Labour party. “These are things bringing the likelihood of a further referendum in to a much sharper timescale than I thought previously possible,” he said.
But Sturgeon has made clear she sees those polls as clear evidence that she risks a second defeat by demanding a quick second referendum. Sturgeon has already dampened down calls for a rerun within the SNP by refusing to allow a debate on a second referendum at next month’s party conference.
She made it clear at the weekend that the party’s manifesto for May’s elections would set out what the triggers would be for a potential rerun but would not necessarily pledge to stage one within the next five years.
She told STV on Monday she had no wish to feel the “utter devastation” of losing again. “If we are going to have another independence referendum I want to know there is support in Scotland for independence that means that referendum is going to be successful,” she said.
Despite the unpopularity of Cameron’s government in Scotland, where it has just one MP, Sturgeon faces a series of political and economic challenges. The UK already faces a second, costly and time-consuming referendum, this time the UK-wide poll on European Union membership.
With the plunge in North Sea oil prices, Scotland’s annual public-sector deficit is predicted to reach as high as £10bn – larger on a per capita basis than the UK’s. And Sturgeon is also under fire on the domestic front over the National Health Service, policing, school results and university reform.
Prof Michael Keating, of the Centre on Constitutional Change at Edinburgh University, said Sturgeon knew too many voters were weary of referendums to risk a second vote. He predicted that the SNP’s popularity would soon dip because of voters’ concern over domestic policies. “The shine will wear off, that’s inevitable,” he said
Keating added that even a split between Scotland and England over whether to remain in the EU in 2017 would not be enough to win a Scottish independence referendum. “That won’t be enough itself for people to vote for independence because Europe is a low-key issue; it would have to be combined with something else. Independence would need to be rising higher in the polls for other reasons and then they could say that’s a material change in circumstances,” he said.
This article was written by Severin Carrell Scotland editor, for theguardian.com on Friday 18th September 2015 00.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010