This article will explain the timeframe within which the next independence referendum will take place and also explain why we can be so confident in our prediction.
In the last few days both the SNP and the Scottish Greens have committed to holding a referendum in the term of the next parliament. That is important as those parties are the ones who are guaranteed to have representation in the next Holyrood Parliament and Alba, which may join them with a handful of MSPs (according to our latest Panelbase poll), would back that.
To be clear the SNP is going to win the election, the only question is by how much and will it have a single-party majority or not? The polls also indicate there will be a significant Yes majority and so the referendum bills that still need to be passed will pass with ease.
However, the commitment states within the term of the next parliament and as a parliamentary term is five years long, some people seem to think that means we have to wait five years. That is a complete and utter misunderstanding of the situation.
First let’s bust a massive myth; the polls currently sit at roughly 50/50 and despite what people say on Facebook, a win for the Yes side is not inevitable. The polls were better, hitting a high of 58% in November and December 2020, but the civil war between the two political giants of the independence movement destroyed the movement’s unity, took the focus off campaigning and put it on infighting, thus independence support has dropped.
Secondly, not everyone who supports independence in the polls is 100% dedicated to it. The Yes side can rely on about 40% but it needs to win the rest of its votes. The No side can rely on about 37% and so there is 23% undecided or who could be fairly easily persuaded to switch sides. Make no mistake, indyref2 will not be a procession it will be a political battle royal and handing any advantage to the opposition would be political suicide. So the Scottish Government and its allies in the next parliament must pick the time, the date, who gets to vote and be ready to salt the battlefield. On top of that, it needs a new economic approach that matches the new post-Covid political reality - and we are not there yet.
OK - let’s look at when the referendum can take place and when it should take place.
What about 2021?
The Holyrood election will be on May 6th this year and at the moment we are still experiencing movement restrictions and some form of lockdown. Even though the vaccination programme is going well it may be months yet till it reaches herd immunity levels and, on top of that, there is still the significant possibility that new strains will emerge, that will render the vaccines ineffective and we will be back in lockdown - Lets hope this doesn't happen but it is a risk. It is only after we are fully clear of the health crisis that we can be sure we can hold a referendum campaign that is not going to have to be halted by another health crisis.
Add to that the fact that the key advantage of the Yes side is the tens of thousands of people who are willing to work for independence, to deliver leaflets, to canvas, to attend rallies and marches. The unionist side has none of that and holding a referendum campaign when the Yes side may not be able to deploy its main tactical advantage would be a quick way to lose.
We will also, possibly, see the UK Government attempt to stop the Scottish Parliament from holding a referendum, especially if the lack of an SNP single-party majority failed to replicate the same conditions after the 2011 SNP majority led to indyref1. We may have a long drawn out court battle to win before the referendum can be held.
There is also a small thing called the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics, which will take place between Friday, July 23 2021 and Sunday, August 8 2021. If indyref2 were announced Autumn 2021, say September or October, then every British medalist will be on every electronic billboard in Scotland with a union flag, just as they did with the Prince Philip memorial billboards last week (which will repeat this Saturday). Every Scottish athlete will be dragged in front of the TV cameras with a Union flag draped around their shoulders and asked if the British athletes federation is paying for their travel, coaches, food and board, they will be asked to say thanks while the PR guys for the British Olympic team stare daggers at them from behind the cameraman.
Look it ain't going to be 2021 - OK?
So we get through winter and the economy is recovering as best it can and we have a new economic approach - based on the emerging Wellbeing approach to economics - if we want to win that is. We have got past the lockdown, the health crisis has passed and we can look at May 2022 as the first genuine opportunity; the date could be announced before Christmas to give us a six month run in. However it's worth pointing out that May 4th will host the Scottish council elections but late May would be a possibility. This does mean that Autumn 2022 is more likely, unless it is not a Section 30 referendum, in which case holding it on the same day as the local council elections would mean any attempt to boycott it would wipe out all the unionist parties in the councils.
Now have the earliest date, what is the latest possible date? IT’S NOT five years. The next UK general election will be held on Thursday, May 2nd 2024. So that rules out 2024 and it must be before then. If the SNP doesn’t hold a referendum before then it will disintegrate; other Yes parties will stand constituency candidates with the general election being the first-past-the-post constituency only vote, the SNP would almost certainly lose almost half its MPs.
Even if you are one of those people that thinks the First Minister is only interested in her own career, then you still have to admit she needs to go before the GE or her career is over. So, the latest possible date for a referendum is September or October 2023. Having won the referendum, the SNP will still field candidates in the GE as we will still be in the UK for a transition period (as happened with the European Elections). If we win then the SNP will likely sweep every seat in Scotland and not one unionist candidate will survive the cull. If the Yes side loses, well that would take an unmitigated disaster/political stupidity (like going too soon or not replacing the Sustainable Growth Commission plan) then either the SNP or some other party will stand in the next general election on the ticket of declaring independence. If for some reason the UK Government manages to win in the courts and stop us from having a referendum, then the SNP will run on a UDI ticket in the 2024 GE.
So we are looking at between May 2022 to October 2023 - 13 months or two and half years at most - before indyref2. The actual date will be chosen by the Scottish Parliament and given it will have a large pro-Yes majority it will be at a time and with the voter franchise that will best suit the chances of a Yes victory. The SNP is not kicking the can down the road, it is creating the flexibility to ensure victory before the next UK general election in 2024.