The first minister beats the independence drum but voters are fed up with constitutional wranglingby Adam Tomkins / April 25, 2019 / Leave a comment
Nicola Sturgeon made a statement to the Scottish parliament on Wednesday in which she called for a second independence referendum to be held within the next two years. Or, at least, that is what she wants her supporters to believe. In reality the first minister knows that calling a re-run of the 2014 referendum too soon will lead to certain defeat and to the crushing end of her own political career. In any case there is surely no chance of a Conservative government in Westminster consenting to a second independence referendum this side of the next Holyrood elections, which are due to take place in May 2021. And without Westminster’s consent any “indyref2” would be unlawful under the devolution arrangements established in the Scotland Act.
Sturgeon knows all this, so why did she make her statement this week? There are three reasons: short, medium and long-term. The most immediate is that this weekend sees the Scottish National Party conference. Sturgeon’s party and, even more so, the broader “Yes” movement, are champing at the bit for another crack at the independence question. Wiser heads in the SNP know that to build a coalition capable of delivering a majority for independence will take time and effort. The reasons for defeat in 2014 are as valid now as they were then—not least on the vexed question of the currency an independent Scotland would use. And the experience of the last three years is sobering. Brexit, as we all know, is proving extraordinarily difficult to deliver. If leaving a loose confederation of European states which has been in existence for only 50 years or so is difficult (and costly and divisive), how much more so leaving a close Union of more than three centuries’ duration?
But not all heads in the SNP are wise. Sturgeon’s authority is not what it was, and she needs to work to hold her troops in line. Throwing red meat to the pack was in large measure what this week’s statement was about.
In the medium term Sturgeon knows that a high-speed train is heading directly for her, and may yet derail her administration entirely. Her predecessor (and, for 30 years, her mentor) Alex Salmond faces 14 counts of sexual misconduct, including two charges of attempted rape. The trial is expected later this year and it will be by far the biggest Scottish story since the dawn of devolution two decades ago. Whether Sturgeon knew anything, and if so when she knew it and what she did about it, are live political questions that the trial will throw into sharp relief. Salmond’s people think Sturgeon has done far too little to protect him from criminal charges which he strenuously denies.
But it’s not just personal: it’s political, too. Salmond thinks that Sturgeon has completely misplayed Brexit and has damaged the Nationalist cause in the process. In the EU referendum Scotland voted 62:38 to remain, but within that 38 per cent minority were as many as 400,000 SNP voters. Sturgeon’s endless insistence that “Scotland is being dragged out of Europe against its will” has so alienated this cohort of the electorate that they have abandoned the SNP, mainly in favour of the Scottish Conservatives. This is most striking in the north east where leaving the EU’s hated common fisheries policy is a top priority. In the 2017 general election the SNP lost 12 of its MPs to the Scottish Tories—including, famously, one Alex Salmond, the former MP for Gordon, in Aberdeenshire.
This is the third reason for this week’s statement. Ever since the day after the EU referendum Sturgeon has tied the fate of a second independence referendum to Brexit. It was a major strategic blunder, and Salmond knows it. Of course there are some voters in Scotland so aghast at Brexit and its fall-out that, even if they voted No to independence in 2014, would now consider voting Yes. These are, in the main, middle-class public sector professionals. You’ll find a lot of them on university campuses. But they are outnumbered by people who don’t care very much about Brexit—by voters who just want us to get on with it and get it out of the way, so that we can talk not about constitutional process but about the issues that really matter to them: skills, schools, jobs, housing and hospitals. All of these issues, it is important to remember, are fully devolved in Scotland. They are Holyrood’s bread and butter.
This large and growing cohort of Scottish voters—small town Scotland, left behind Scotland, just about managing Scotland—feel as alienated by Sturgeon’s metropolitan, internationalist politics as the fishermen of the north east. The SNP used to hoover up these voters, but the Nationalists are not speaking their language any more. These voters want to talk about their children’s education and about their future in the Scottish jobs market; but all Sturgeon wants to talk about is Brexit and indyref2.
Voters are fed up with constitutional wrangling. They want a politics that moves on from all that. Sturgeon signalled yesterday that she has a tin ear to that demand. If she wants to play to her own gallery rather than speak for the vast majority of Scots who have had more than enough of this, so be it. It’s only two years until the next Holyrood elections, and change is coming.