July 29, 2021

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Scottish nationalists are waking up to reality

4 min read

The campaign for Scottish independence has been on hold since May’s elections to the Scottish Parliament. This may be because the results of that election were very little different from those in 2016, which resulted, the next five years, in the same amount of progress towards Nicola Sturgeon’s only political ambition as we have seen in the last three months.

Or it may be because the SNP, and particularly its chief executive, Peter Murrell (who also happens to be married to the first minister) is too busy dealing with the demands of a newly-launched police investigation into the whereabouts of £600,000 donated by SNP supporters in the expectation that it would be spent on the campaign for independence but which may (or may not) have been spent on more mundane day-to-day activities instead.

Either way, for the time being, Scottish nationalists will have to resign themselves to spending their summer nursing their grievances and polishing their saltires while Sturgeon decides when to fire the next volley in her battle with the UK government over whether it will grant a second referendum on the issue.

In the meantime, to avoid the impression that the Scottish Government is actually getting on with the day job and running the country rather than banging on about “the sovereign will of the Scottish people”, a new document has been produced in order to convince Sturgeon’s party activists that, while the surface water seems curiously calm and undisturbed, there is furious activity happening beneath.

The SNP’s claim to be a forward-thinking, modern party is somewhat belied by the first page of this new piece of propaganda, which is headlined: “YES – A referendum for recovery”. It would almost be worth conceding a rerun referendum just to see the nationalists’ faces when the question on the ballot paper turns out to be a choice between Leave and Remain instead of Yes and No, as it was in 2014. That’s a lot of expensive rebranding to do. Still, I’m sure Dominic Cummings can let Sturgeon have some of his old campaigning banners from 2016.

What’s significant about the new production – and the gist of most nationalist rhetoric in the last half a decade – is the implication that while independence may be a tough sell to an electorate that has already rejected it by a healthy margin (and which polls suggest still doesn’t enjoy majority support), a referendum is far easier to sell.

In the 2010 parliament, a Labour Party friend helped lead the campaign for what was then known as The People’s Pledge, aimed at convincing the main party leaders to follow the Liberal Democrats’ lead and support an In/Out referendum on the European Union. My friend was concerned that if Labour didn’t adopt the pledge, David Cameron’s Conservatives might have an unfair advantage when it came to attracting the support of disgruntled Ukip supporters.

His concern was prescient: Ed Miliband rejected the policy, Cameron won an overall majority and the rest is history. My Labour Party friend, meanwhile, who is an avowed Remainer, is still trying to come to terms with Brexit.

Scottish nationalists must surely have learned the lesson from that experience, just as surely as some pro-UK campaigners have not; which is: don’t campaign for a referendum that could result in a change you don’t support. 

Sturgeon knows that if you ignore the fact that a recent independence referendum has already been held, the democratic arguments for another one are strong – not incontrovertible, mind you, but strong. And she knows that there are many pro-UK Scots who want to be seen as democrats and who might concede the case for a referendum (as many of us did in 2012) while still intending to support the continuation of our UK membership.

And that is the SNP’s big opportunity. Between 2012 and 2014, Alex Salmond led a campaign that increased support for independence by 50 per cent, from 30 per cent to 45. They want to repeat that exercise in the expectation that a long campaign will have the same effect as last time, except next time round they need only a few extra points on the Leave side to win.

It’s all terribly cynical. Internationally, independence usually happens when there is overwhelming and long-term support among the people affected, not when a wily politician is willing to fracture their country by edging their campaign just over the finish line. 

But that’s what Sturgeon hopes and plans to do. It is her Plan A. And also her Plans B to Z. And she knows that so long as Boris Johnson says no to another referendum – on the perfectly valid basis that there’s already been one in which Scots gave an unambiguous answer, not to mention the small fact of a devastating pandemic whose social and economic impacts will be felt for many years to come – then she is staring defeat in the face.

How frustrated she and her party must feel that this UK government is not leaping in to rescue her ambitions in the same way that previous governments have. It’s really not fair. 

It’s almost as if the time and energy of the Scottish Government might be better focused on running the country as it is and not as the SNP would like it to be. 

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