Nicola Sturgeon is a woman with a problem. She stands head and shoulders above her rivals in the Scottish Parliament, and her party enjoys a hegemonic position in Scottish politics. But it isn’t enough.
Today’s polling showing a lead for support for independence amongst voters ought to be a boon. And it may salve her increasingly restive party and movement for a while.
But it is a rare chink of light, not the sunlit uplands of sustained support for separation that Brexit was supposed to deliver.
And whilst it might in other circumstances have opened up a tactical opportunity, she can’t make use of it. The Supreme Court ruled against the Scottish Government conducting its own referendum, and the Conservatives are absolutely not going to grant one before the next election.
Even if Labour row back on their tough talk against deals with the SNP and grant one, they probably won’t have even the chance to take office until 2024. It took three years after the Nationalists’ landslide Holyrood win in 2011 to legislate for a legal referendum and conduct the campaign – and that was with David Cameron short-sightedly giving in on issues such as the question and timing in order to try and ensure the SNP accepted the result.
That means that the shortest path to a legal referendum probably leads to 2026 or 2027. Sturgeon became First Minister in 2014. Thirteen years is a long time to go “on and on”, as Margaret Thatcher put it, and there seems little evidence that she wishes to do so.
Hence Plan B: an attempt to use the next general election as a “proxy vote” on independence.
This proposal is all downside and no upside for the Nationalists. They have never won an outright majority of the vote at a Scottish election (the last party to do that was actually the Tories, in 1955). Moreover, they have usually taken pains at election time to broaden their appeal by casting a vote for the SNP as one for a strong voice for Scotland, rather than a direct endorsement of independence.
Should the Nationalists (and their separatist foederati, such as the Greens) fail to clear that 50 per cent threshold, it will have many of the effects of a second defeat for independence, which is in large part what knocked the legs out from under Quebecois sovereigntism in Canada.
But even if they win, what then? No Westminster government would recognise the legitimacy of the outcome and enter into negotiations; scant few international governments – least of all Spain, gatekeeper of any pathway to European Union membership – would view a general election as a legitimate foundation for independence.
That narrows Sturgeon’s options for actually breaking away to an Ian Smith-style Unilateral Declaration of Independence; probably not a club she has any desire to be part of. Even if she were prepared to roll the dice on it, it is far from clear that the machinery of the Scottish Government, which is ultimately part of the UK’s Home Civil Service, would be willing or able to collaborate with it.
No, as we noted in a previous column, the most plausible explanation for the plan is that it gives Sturgeon a clear point on which to bow out from frontline politics. Alex Salmond resigned after taking his shot at independence; his successor may feel she has to do the same.
Of course, it would also generate a fresh grievance, which might help to hold the core of the separatist alliance together. As I’ve outlined before, the SNP has long operated a “mañana strategy“, constantly maintaining the illusion of imminent battle to paper over the cracks in an increasingly divided movement.
Yet there are growing signs that the Nationalists’ phalanx-like discipline, a key strength, is really starting to break down. The toppling of Ian Blackford as the party’s leader in Westminster, and his replacement by Stephen Flynn, was a clear blow to the First Minister’s authority; he defeated a close ally of hers to win the post.
He also seems determined to create more distance between the London group and the leadership; until now the SNP’s MPs have tended to wheel and turn as one under orders from Bute House, the sort of bloc that people who wrote about “Ruth Davidson’s MPs” once envisioned the Scottish Tories might form.
(Sam Taylor of These Islands has an interesting thread on Flynn which Rishi Sunak might wish to peruse, now they’re to be regular sparring partners at PMQs.)
Thus, despite the polls, the Nationalists’ medium-term prospects don’t seem particularly auspicious. Sturgeon, a first-class political operator if a mediocre governor, will step down at some point, and there is nobody of her stature or ability ready to replace her. The SNP’s woeful domestic record, chronicled regularly in this column, continues to stack up.
So far, nationalism continues to hold enough voters together to ensure their dominance, just as Brexit held the Conservatives above 40 per cent of the vote come rain or shine after 2016. But as the Tories discovered, once that effect comes unstuck it can come unstuck fast.
It may therefore be a good for the SNP, in a purely electoral sense, that they aren’t going to achieve independence and break the spell. But as frustration mounts amongst the faithful, it will get harder to maintain their broad coalition of committed separatists and more centrist voters. Gambits such as the proxy vote on independence, and its consequences, are likely to alienate the latter group.
Alas, it may be that Labour rides to the movements rescue. The Opposition have taken a firm rhetorical line against the prospect of deals with the SNP, doubtless to forestall a repeat of the Conservatives’ very effective campaign against Ed Miliband in 2015. Reports persist that Sir Keir Starmer may still be eyeing up some sort of agreement – although unless the Tories’ polling improves dramatically, he won’t need one.
However, if he presses ahead with Gordon Brown’s proposals for constitutional reform, he will likely use that has his justification for not granting another referendum: Scottish voters should wait to see what they think of New Britain before they decide to reject it.
But as I outlined yesterday, in the medium-to-long-term the Brown plan would be a gift to the SNP, knocking both the institutional and moral foundations out from under the Union and handing Nationalist politicians even more arsenals, treasuries, and pulpits from which to wage their campaign against the UK.
Such consequences will take some little time to play out, as did those of New Labour’s first round of constitutional renovations. And they will probably come too late for Sturgeon, who will by then probably be quite stuck into a happy and much less stressful retirement.
But the first and best allies of the campaign for independence have always been pro-UK politicians who think they can buy it off. And despite all the hard lessons of the past 25 years, there remains no shortage of those.