Sturgeon steps back from independence referendum demands

Sturgeon steps back from independence referendum demands

SNP manifesto appears to drop first minister’s call for second Scotland vote to be held before final Brexit deal is signed

icola Sturgeon launches the SNP manifesto in Perth, a key Tory target. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

(The Guardian) – A second Scottish independence referendum should be held after the Brexit process is complete, Nicola Sturgeon has said, signalling a significant change in her party’s constitutional strategy.

The first minister launched the Scottish National party’s general election manifesto in Perth, a key Conservative target, on Tuesday and sidelined her quest for a second independence vote in favour of an attack on Tory austerity.

In a key passage of the SNP manifesto, she appeared to drop her demands made in March for a second independence referendum to be held between autumn 2018 and spring 2019. She said then that she wanted the vote to be held after the terms of Brexit were clear but, if possible, before a final deal was signed.

The document launched on Tuesday states: “At the end of the Brexit process, when the final terms of the deal are known, it is right that Scotland should have a choice about our future.”

That implies the vote may not take place until later in 2019 or afterwards. Sturgeon had already signalled she would allow her previously rigid timetable to slip to late 2019, but Theresa May has said it could take several years after the UK signs article 50 in 2019 for the Brexit process to be complete.

The manifesto repeats Sturgeon’s position that her government, having won the 2016 Holyrood elections, has a mandate to stage the referendum, but the failure to specify any date signals a softening stance.

Repeated opinion polls show Scottish voters do not want a second vote before Brexit is complete, and recent polls show support for independence has fallen to below 45%.

The SNP’s popularity has fallen to as low as 41%, from a high of 55% in April 2015, the month before the SNP landslide in the Westminster elections.

Rival candidates this time say Sturgeon’s stance on Brexit and independence has alienated previous SNP voters, who are now backing the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

In her speech to SNP activists on Tuesday, Sturgeon put a heavy emphasis on what SNP MPs would do at Westminster, again implying she was preparing for a long gap until a second referendum was held or won.

She confirmed the SNP would back a 50p top tax rate, but only if it was UK-wide; that SNP MPs would oppose welfare and NHS funding cuts in the rest of the UK; they would vote to protect the triple lock on pensions, and support the repeal of the UK Trade Union Act.

“Only the SNP can keep the Tories in check,” she said.

Sturgeon’s manifesto said: “My pledge is to make Scotland stronger at Westminster,” with the foreword stressing that voting for SNP MPs would reinforce the right of the Scottish parliament to decide on when an independence referendum should happen.

She told her audience: “Last year’s Holyrood election delivered the democratic mandate for Scotland having such a choice, and the recent vote of the Scottish parliament underlined it. If the SNP wins a majority of Scottish seats in this election, that will further reinforce our mandate.

“And in these circumstances, any continued Tory attempts to block
Scotland having a choice – when the time is right and the options are clear – would be democratically unsustainable. However, that will be a choice for the end of the Brexit process.”