- Polling expert John Curtice: Downing Street blocking a fresh independence referendum would risk “suggesting that Scotland cannot decide for itself whether it wishes to remain inside the Union or not.”
- Indyref2 would be “one hell of a risk” for both May and Sturgeon’s governments
LONDON — Denying Scotland a fresh vote on Scottish independence would be “politically pretty catastrophic” for the UK government, according to polling expert John Curtice.
The Times reported on Monday that Prime Minister Theresa May is preparing for the Scottish government to call a second independence referendum when she triggers Article 50 in March.
Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, told BI earlier in February that blocking such a demand would be “legally possible” but politically damaging for the UK government.
He said any move to block a fresh vote would risk “suggesting that Scotland cannot decide for itself whether it wishes to remain inside the Union or not.”
“You can push and harry about the terms of the referendum, but put it like this: Given that it won’t require a great number of people to change their minds before we are in the realm where “Yes” are ahead, I wouldn’t want to take that risk [of denying Scotland a referendum] if I were the UK government,” Curtice said.
A second referendum would be “one hell of a risk” for both Sturgeon and May’s governments
In 2014, Scots voted by a majority of 55% to 45% to stay within the union, something then-current First Minister Alex Salmond declared would be a “once-in-a-generation” event.
Polling still suggests the majority of Scots would vote against independence, but the country voted to remain in the EU in June by a margin of 62% to 38%.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has argued that the Brexit vote — and especially Theresa May’s decision to pursue pull the whole of the UK out of the single market — is against Scotland’s wishes, and therefore makes a second referendum “more likely,” as it amounts to a “material change in circumstances.”
Curtice, who runs the highly-respected polling website What Scotland Thinks, said that Downing Street needed to make some concessions to the Scottish government during upcoming Brexit negotiations so that Sturgeon does not feel obliged to call a new referendum.
“The advice to the UK government is this: You need to give the Scottish government something on Brexit so that Nicola Sturgeon has got a way out [of calling a referendum],” he said.
“The risk the UK government is taking at the moment is that it’s not offering the Scottish government a way out, and is therefore potentially leaving it with no choice but to take what — from the Scottish government’s own perspective — is one hell of a risk, but is also one hell of a risk for the UK government.”
Curtice said the “way out” for the UK government was to offer Scotland something from their list of Brexit demands, such as giving Scotland the right to determined its own immigration policy. He said there was “quite a lot of cross-party support for the idea,” even among pro-unionist MPs.
“Doing that and saying that, as a result, Scotland can apply freedom of movement — or something close to it — would give the Scottish government something,” he said.
Curtice also suggested that it would also be possible for Westminster to devolve VAT policy to Holyrood after Brexit.
He added: “They probably won’t want to give Scotland [concessions on] the single market, but the UK government could simply say: ‘Look, we want to get as much access to the single market as the Scottish government wants to achieve, we’re simply asking about how to get there, but we will continue to talk to the Scottish government about how best to do this.'”
“Again, it would give them a way out,” he said.
The UK government “might be advised to find a warmer tone”
Downing Street’s own position on a fresh referendum is increasingly unclear. Asked on Monday whether Downing Street would veto a second referendum, a spokesperson for the prime minister told Business Insider: “The question is not ‘could there be another referendum’ but ‘should there be a referendum,’ and the answer to that is no.”
Pushed again on whether a referendum would be vetoed by Downing Street, they said: “I’m not getting into the hypotheticals.”
Curtice said: “It would be sufficiently risky for the UK government that it would be wise to avoid a confrontation. So far they are avoiding saying ‘No,’ but so far [Scotland’s demands] have been greeted with a very large amount of cold water.”
He said that Downing Street “might be advised to find a warmer tone.”