Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Welcome to the year in which Nicola Sturgeon will *probably* renew her demand for a Section 30 order

As I've said a number of times, political prediction is usually a mug's game, and that could hardly be more true than at this exact moment.  Britain might be about to leave the European Union, or to remain in the European Union for good, or various options in between.  Anybody who says they know for sure what the first three months of this year will bring is deluding themselves.

If most of us had the chance to know just one thing, it would be whether 2019 will be the year in which an independence referendum is called.  But that's the wrong question as far as any hope of making a meaningful prediction is concerned.  There are too many imponderables once the indyref ball is set rolling.  Will London's "now is not the time" line hold?  If it does hold, will the SNP leadership take decisive action to break the logjam, or will we go round in perpetual circles for years to come as we repeatedly secure new mandates for a referendum which are repeatedly ignored?

None of us can know exactly how it will play out, but we'll never get a chance to find out unless Nicola Sturgeon first of all renews her demand for a Section 30 order.  So for now, the most interesting and straightforward question is whether that will happen at some point in 2019.  And it seems to me that, on the balance of probabilities, it will.  There are a few things that could prevent it happening, though -

* A soft Brexit is negotiated which keeps Britain in the single market and customs union indefinitely.  As this has been the SNP's main stated objective throughout most of the last two years, it would be very difficult to press ahead with an indyref if it happened.  But it's highly unlikely - there's no sign of a parliamentary majority for it, and there's a question mark over whether our European partners would faciliate it anyway.

* A "People's Vote" is called.  The odds are still against this, but it's a possibility.  Remember, though, that a Remain vote is by no means a foregone conclusion even if a People's Vote does happen.  A second Leave vote would leave the casus belli for an indyref intact.

* A snap election is called.  If the SNP were to be defeated in a general election - and I mean a genuine defeat rather than the phony unionist triumphalism over the SNP "only" winning 60% of the seats in 2017 - that would obviously make it psychologically much harder to push for a Section 30 order.  But, just like a People's Vote, a general election could go either way - if, as opinion polls currently suggest, the SNP gain seats rather than lose them, the drive for an indyref would have renewed momentum behind it.  It's also possible that a Section 30 request could be made before any snap election anyway.

* Article 50 is extended beyond the end of this year.  That's unlikely - all the mood music suggests that EU countries would only agree to a limited extension for a specific reason (to facilitate a referendum, for example).

* Theresa May's deal is somehow approved, and the SNP leadership then decide to kick the can down the road for another couple of years until Britain's long-term relationship with the EU is decided.  There might be a temptation to do this, but I don't think the rank-and-file SNP membership would stand for it.  They've been patient thus far, but they're not going to accept a "tomorrow never comes" approach.

Taking all of the above into account, I'd suggest there is around a 70% chance that the Section 30 request will be renewed at some point before 31st December of this year, thus returning us to the status quo ante of spring 2017.  And then we'll see.