14 June 2022

A feeble push for another independence referendum is Sturgeon’s last roll of the dice

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Here we go again! Nicola Sturgeon has, once again, kicked off the Scottish Government’s drive for independence.

Well, sort of. As Scottish journalists have been quick to point out, this latest push seems short on concrete action. The First Minister doesn’t seem minded to table legislation for a referendum, nor to ask Westminster for the authority to do so, as occurred in the run-up to 2014.

Instead, we’re getting a series of documents (drawn up by civil servants, at public expense) which attempt to make the case for breaking up the UK. And that, so far, is about it.

And unlike 2014, when Alex Salmond was quite happy to let the bureaucrats draw up a breathtakingly optimistic (some might say deceitful) portrait of how an independent Scotland would fare, Sturgeon doesn’t seem to have found convincing answers to any of the economic questions which have bedevilled her cause.

So why is she doing it? Here are two possible explanations.

First, we have ‘a woman in a hurry’. When the First Minister took over from her predecessor in 2014, she had time on her side. Having inherited a hugely expanded separatist movement and enjoying stellar ratings, followed swiftly by the Brexit vote, many people assumed Sturgeon would probably be the one to finish what her mentor had started.

Yet the years have ticked past, as they do, and the Scottish public has stubbornly refused to change its mind. Now Sturgeon has passed Salmond to become Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister. She failed to replicate Salmond’s majority at the last election, and won’t have another opportunity to win a fresh mandate until 2026.

Worse, casting an eye over the rest of the SNP’s group of MSPs, there is no obvious successor with anything like Sturgeon’s political abilities. The Nationalists have been extremely lucky to be led by two very able politicians in succession. Such lightning seldom strikes thrice.

All of which means, when factored alongside the sheer amount of time that would be needed to conduct a referendum, negotiate the terms of any break-up, and set up an independent state, that the First Minister has run out of time. So, ready or not, here she comes.

If that is a heart-based explanation, there is also a head-based one: independence is the only thing which holds her increasingly fractious coalition together. 

If her activists and voters came to believe that Sturgeon wasn’t about to launch the next great campaign, they’d either start staying at home or, worse, flirting with another separatist party. Which in turn would mean that the SNP might start paying an electoral price for how abysmally they are governing Scotland.

The truth is probably a mixture of both of these. Sturgeon is such an effective politician (in campaigning terms, at least) in part because she is at once a true believer and a clear-sighted realist about the basis for the Nationalists’ extraordinary grip on public office.

Independence is more important than running the devolved institutions well, yes, but control of those institutions (and the innumerable opportunities that affords to chip away at the British state) is not something to be thrown away on a referendum bid that isn’t going to work.

So much for speculation about Sturgeon. The more concrete question for unionists is: how should we, and especially the Government, respond?

The most important thing is to resist rising to the bait. The First Minister wants a grand set-piece battle on the constitution – ideally with her squaring off against a wounded Boris Johnson. A panicky concession of more powers to the Scottish Parliament (‘unionism classic’) would probably be her ideal; a noisy refusal (‘muscular unionism’) would likewise play into her hands.

Instead, Westminster should stonewall. Ministers should quietly and respectfully reiterate their line that the Government will not be granting a second referendum less than a decade after the first ‘once in a generation’ vote and has no reason to do so. 

Second, and more ambitiously, they should go on the front foot to force the debate back onto the territory Sturgeon is desperate to escape: her domestic legacy.

Ministers should start drawing up proposals for how the British state can respond to some of the SNP’s more egregious scandals. Should there be an independent judge-led inquiry into the Ferguson Marine ferry scandal? Does the disastrous rollout of the Scottish census – ruining any hope of an accurate British data set – make the case for instituting a proper, British census?

Unfortunately, the appetite for this sort of proactive, granular unionism seems limited at the highest levels of the current government. But even if Johnson et al fail to take the initiative, today’s announcement still looks like good news for the Union. If this is the best that Sturgeon has got, things are probably going to be fine.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.