Like all the best political rows there is in fact remarkably little that, on the surface, actually divides Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon. The First Minister of Scotland wants to have a referendum when the terms of the Brexit deal are known, which, as the UK Government says, will be somewhere around the autumn of 2018 to the spring of 2019. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom doesn’t want a referendum at least until the terms of the Brexit deal are known, which she imagines will be around the same time.
The answer of course, is that Ms May is attempting to employ a degree of subterfuge so obvious as to be almost comical. She says that no-one wants a referendum now, which of course they do not. What she is in fact insisting on is that she won’t even think about a Scottish referendum before the Brexit process is almost over. By then it will be too late; a referendum will take a further 18 months to prepare, by which point the UK, including Scotland at least for the time being, will most likely be outside the European Union. At that point the Scottish people would perhaps have to have a second referendum on them leaving the UK and joining the EU. And for the best part of a decade Scottish business would have to compete against a backdrop of almost perpetual political uncertainty about which of the various single markets and currency zones on offer Scotland will end up in. Investment will collapse, and jobs and prosperity with it. It is not something that the British government should visit upon Scotland; and if they did they would be never forgotten or forgiven. That is what is exciting the SNP so much. That is why their deputy leader, Angus Robertson, declares, with justification that “no UK prime minister should stand in the way of Scottish democracy”. Except of course that this one is. What’s more she seems keen to stand in the way for as long as possible into the 2020s, by which time the terms of political debate will have altered, and there may even be a shift in the balance of power away from the SNP in the Scottish parliament.
If that is Ms May’s cunning plan, then it is only likely further to inflame Scottish opinion. Most Scots may well favour remaining in the UK and are in no hurry to return to the bitter and divisive debates that characterised the first independence referendum – and the next one promises to be still more divisive. However their patience will be tested if the Westminster government insists on denying the Scottish parliament its moral right to call a further vote when constitutional circumstances are changing so demonstrably. The SNP has the better of the argument, while Ms May has the law. In the short run Ms May is right to assume that the law will prevail; longer term, Ms Sturgeon is correct in believing that will of the Scottish people will indeed be heard, and it is the latter that will finally determine the outcome of the next once-in-a-generation vote.