How long a game is Nicola Sturgeon playing?

Scottish independence will remain a live question whatever short-term setbacks the Supreme Court delivers

July 06, 2022
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Image: SST / Alamy Stock Photo

Nicola Sturgeon as good as admitted last week that Scottish independence isn’t happening anytime soon. The question now is whether, like the Quebec separatist movement in the 1990s, the SNP has peaked and will recede; or whether, more like the Catalan nationalists, they will constantly regroup and reassert, keeping the constitutional issue live for the foreseeable future.

The answer depends, I suspect, on whether Labour can revive sufficiently in Scotland to lead an alternative government in Edinburgh within the next two or three Scottish elections. In Anas Sarwar the party now has a credible leader; but with Sturgeon holding fast to about half the vote and seats at Holyrood, he needs a whole lot more followers, which probably depends on the first minister retiring or imploding.

The key point about Sturgeon’s referendum announcement last week is that she is referring her plan for another independence poll to the UK Supreme Court, and won’t proceed if it is ruled illegal. Since the future of the Union is manifestly not a devolved issue, it is virtually inconceivable that the court will rule it to be within Sturgeon’s powers.

Sturgeon also said that in the event of the referendum not proceeding, the next general election would become a de facto referendum. But that too is not a legal mechanism for procuring independence, and it is only a political mechanism if the SNP is once again overwhelmingly dominant and finds a willing accomplice in Westminster—as Alex Salmond did with David Cameron, who in 2012 signed the Edinburgh Agreement to allow the last referendum.

You can’t completely rule out such a scenario, particularly if by then a Labour government in London requires tacit SNP support in a hung parliament. But it is a long shot. Labour has ruled out any formal deal with the SNP in such circumstances. It could nonetheless concede another independence referendum without a formal deal, but that would be strongly resisted by many Labour grandees, and would only be remotely possible if the SNP once again polled half—or more—of the vote in Scotland (they polled 45 per cent in the 2019 election, with the Tories on 25 and Labour on 19).

A big question is how long a game Sturgeon herself intends—and is able—to play. She has been SNP leader and first minister for eight years, and has no obvious successor. Fifteen years separated the two independence referendums in Quebec, the second of which failed by a hair’s breadth in 1995.

Party leaderships and prime ministerships of much more than a decade are uncommon in the UK. But they are not unprecedented elsewhere, in the case of highly dominant leaders with a clear mission. The greatest Swedish social democrat prime minister, Tage Erlander, served for 23 years and won seven elections in a society not dissimilar to Scotland’s—and with a bigger population. Sturgeon is still only 51. And being a devolved leader is not as demanding as leading a sovereign state, nor does it entail the same level of responsibility. A large part of Sturgeon’s skill lies in deflecting onto Westminster and its Tory prime ministers blame for what’s not working north of the border, whether justified or not.

I have no idea of Sturgeon’s medium-term plans; I doubt she does either. An intriguing thought is that she is playing a very long game. But as the Quebec experience shows, even very long games don’t necessarily work in the separatist arena. 

A Tory government unpopular in Scotland, implementing a Brexit opposed by a majority of Scots in the UK’s 2016 referendum, has been the perfect storm for Sturgeon to exploit. Whether it continues to be so probably depends on whether Labour, now looking like the second party in Scotland again since Ruth Davidson’s departure as Scottish Tory leader, can posit a credible non-Tory and non-nationalist future for Scotland. It will benefit if it can make competence a key issue for voters, as the SNP falls down on this front.

The 39-year-old Sarwar has made a decent start as Labour leader since last year. But he is still in the foothills of the pursuit of serious power. Scottish independence is at bay but not yet remotely defeated—and Sturgeon may be around for a long while yet.