Sturgeon’s future: when should the SNP next call for a referendum?

Nicola Sturgeon Press Conference

When will the next Scottish independence take place?

After the ‘Yes’-side’s defeat in the 2014 referendum, the SNP surged in the polls and decisively won the 2015 election north of the border. Soon after, the party seemed unstoppable until June’s snap election, in which they lost 21 seats and suffered a significant fall in their share of the vote.

There is no denying that the party won the election in Scotland, but the vote was a huge set-back, and has put Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for a second referendum, proposed in the wake of Brexit, on hold, as reported by the BBC.

The question now is: when will the SNP next go for a vote?

When the polls are right

Independence is the central reason for the SNP’s existence. While the brakes have been put on a second referendum, there is no denying that the issue will resurface in the coming years

One factor that will be important is the polls. Since the referendum, polls have put support for independence and support for the union neck-and-neck or on a par with the 2014 result. Following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, a handful gave the pro-independence side the upper-hand, but that has since subsided. A YouGov poll from March, put No on 57%, well-ahead of Yes on 43%.

The recent general election has showed that campaigns can significantly shift the polls, but Nicola Sturgeon will likely only go for the next vote when the numbers are in her movement's favour.

Alex Salmond MSP

Programme for government

On top of this, the SNP recently revealed its ambitious, and somewhat radical, plans for the current parliamentary session, as reported by the BBC. The proposals included banning petrol and diesel cars by 2032, discussions on altering income tax, and continuing with education reforms. The site also reports that the Scottish government will lift the public-sector pay cap of 1%, which has been imposed on Scottish public-sector workers since 2013.

The party has been in government for one whole decade. With the narrative emerging that the party has achieved very little during its time in power, Sturgeon needs to prove that it is getting on with the job of governing, and not going on about independence.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson recently wrote in Holyrood Magazine saying:

“Fast-forward a decade and little has changed. In fact, the SNP has only succeeded in whacking up payments in certain parts of the country, like the Lothians and Aberdeenshire, where people in modest family houses are now being regarded as millionaires.”

In order to call another referendum, the SNP will need to show it can govern, and beat off the charge that their only focus is independence.

Only then can they call another vote.

Ruth Davidson MSP

2021 or later?

The next Scottish election is due to be held in 2021, giving the SNP four years to plan ahead. In their 2016 manifesto, they included the pledge to support an independence referendum if Scotland were to be dragged out of the EU against its will. It was a carefully crafted document, written in an attempt not to commit the party to an immediate referendum, but allow them to call for one if they thought they could win.

The 2021 manifesto could be a trickier one to write, particularly if independence polling numbers have not shifted by then, however, with four years to plan, the party will likely come up with a clever way of guaranteeing an independence vote without guaranteeing one.