Scotland divided on second independence vote

Delegates at Scottish National Party conference are aware the timing must be right

Susanne Churnside and her husband, Jim, have a dilemma. The couple from the Scottish Borders, have spent the past two years hoping for a second independence referendum.

That dream moved a step closer on Thursday when first minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would unveil draft legislation to prepare for a rerun of the 2014 vote.

Now the Churnsides are wondering if their fellow Scots are ready to vote again. Susanne thinks Sturgeon should “wait to see the polls shifting a bit”. For Jim, time is of the essence.

"I fear that the longer it takes the less likelihood there is of winning," he says during a break in the second day of the Scottish National Party (SNP) conference in Glasgow

That uncertainty – to stay or to go – seems to be shared by many in the SNP.

On Friday, Sturgeon said she was "not rushing to another independence referendum", but also said she believed it was "highly likely", repeating the wording she used on the morning after the Brexit vote in which a majority of Scots backed staying in the EU.

Kate Forbes, a SNP member of the Scottish parliament for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, says the Sturgeon is simply honouring her commitment to protect Scottish interests.

"We said back in June that we would put all the options on the table. It's an obvious next step to consult on an independence referendum, and that's what we are doing," Forbes told The Irish Times.

Many SNP figures say any vote would have to take place before the UK formally leaves the EU, a process that is due to be completed in March 2019.

Separate deal

English-born SNP member Steve Davies wears a kilt, a furry sporran and a T-shirt emblazoned with Sturgeon’s image. He would like the SNP leader to unilaterally declare independence, but also says the party must wait until the time is right for a second referendum

"We have to win it next time. We are not going to have another bite of the cherry," says Davies, who lives in Glasgow.

Support for independence is running well below half of the population in polls amid an economic slowdown and low oil prices. Nationalists hope that Brexit – and the perceived intransigence of British prime minister Theresa May to demands for a separate deal for Scotland – will change that.

On Friday, it emerged that Scottish secretary of state David Mundell will not be a permanent member of her advisory team on leaving the EU. At the conference, SNP members backed a motion calling for "every avenue" to be explored to keep Scotland in the EU, including a second independence referendum.

Many nationalists concede that Brexit also poses serious questions for independence, particularly around the relationship between Scotland and England. Economic uncertainty dogged the 2014 referendum campaign, which the nationalists lost by 10 points.

Expected spike

More planning is needed to win a second vote, says Shona McAlpine from the cross-party Scottish Independence Convention at a stall in a space away from the more corporate – and expensive – main conference.

“Nicola is saying things to keep everyone happy but without finding any real answers yet,” McAlpine says. “We are not in a position to say, for example, ‘We will have a referendum in September 2018’. We have to start thinking first.”

Political commentator Andy Mciver says Sturgeon risks "marching her troops up the hill only to have to take them down again" if she does not hold a second referendum, but says the expected spike in support of independence after Brexit has yet to materialise.

“There are lots of people on the progressive ‘yes’ side who are desperate to believe that there are hundreds of thousands who will switch from no to yes because of Brexit but that hasn’t happened,” says the former head of communications for the Scottish Conservatives.

SNP member Iain Aitken runs Yes2, a grass-roots pro-independence campaign pushing for a second referendum. His stall is filled with T-shirts, badges and stickers. Business has been brisk, but he says activists are in no rush for a second vote.

“What’s crucial is that the timing is right. You could go too early and not be guaranteed to win. Realistically we are not looking for a win, we are looking for a comfortable win.”