Just over five years ago, on 28 March 2017, the Scottish Parliament voted to start negotiations on holding a new independence referendum. In that connexion, Nicola Sturgeon said this:
I hope the UK government will respect the will of this parliament. If it does so, I will enter discussion in good faith and with a willingness to compromise. However, if it chooses not to do so I will return to the parliament following the Easter recess to set out the steps that the Scottish government will take to progress the will of parliament.
We all know now that Theresa May chose not to play along, but Sturgeon never set out the steps she promised us. It’s easy to conclude now that this was never her intention, but I think it’s more likely she painted herself into a corner and never found a way out.
In order to figure out what happened, I’ve made a short timeline of the main events since then. (Please do let me know if I’ve got any dates wrong, or if I’ve missed out anything important.)
- 28 March 2017: The Scottish Parliament votes to start negotiations for a new indyref.
- 29 March 2017: The UK triggers Article 50.
- 16 April 2017: The parliamentary Easter recess ends.
- 18 April 2017: Theresa May calls a general election.
- 4 May 2017: Council elections. SNP are basically unchanged, the Tories advance.
- 8 June 2017: General election. SNP lose 21 MPs, but the Tories lose their majority.
- 1 October 2017: Catalan independence referendum. Because it ends badly, many people conclude that independence is a rather scary prospect.
- 24 July 2019: Boris Johnson becomes PM.
- 12 December 2019: General election. The SNP win 13 seats but the Tories get an absolute majority.
- 31 January 2020: Brexit day.
- 1 March 2020: First positive case of Covid-19 confirmed in Scotland.
- 31 December 2020: End of the Brexit transition period.
Based on this, my best guess is that what happened was something like this:
In March 2017, Nicola Sturgeon expected the Scottish people to react very badly to being told they couldn’t have their new independence referendum, and her Plan B might have been something like triggering a new Holyrood election in lieu of a referendum.
She was just about to announce this when May called a general election. A lot of the media expected the SNP to win this easily because of the PM’s now-is-not-the-time stance, and that this would lead to a new indyref. I guess Sturgeon quietly thought this sounded like a great plan, and she basically adopted this as her Plan B (without telling anybody, though).
The council elections didn’t go as well as predicted, and the Tories did better than expected, not least in former SNP strongholds such as Aberdeenshire. This made Sturgeon panic, and instead of turning the general election into a pre-indyref, she decided to play it safe in order to keep the SNP together by not offending their pro-Brexit voters.
Because the manifesto was so weak on independence, anti-Brexit activists weren’t inspired, and pro-Brexit voters nevertheless didn’t want to support the SNP, and so the result was underwhelming. The SNP still won a large majority of seats, of course, but it just didn’t feel like a victory.
Nicola Sturgeon now had a problem. She didn’t have a workable Plan B any longer (because it depended on the people of Scotland rising up against the Tories). Perhaps she considered organising an unauthorised referendum instead as a Plan C, but if so, the reactions to the Catalan independence referendum made her shelve that plan.
She had now painted herself into a corner. She had promised a new indyref, but she didn’t have any ideas how to get there.
Perhaps she keeps hoping for a new chance to appear out of nowhere, but that’s exceedingly unlikely when she doesn’t do anything to make it happen.
Of course there are many other possibilities, but this version of events explains why she suddenly appeared to lose her mojo at some point in 2017.
I just wish she had had the courage and good grace to resign when it became clear that she didn’t know how to make independence happen.