On the 22 November 2014, Nicola Sturgeon seemed to hold Scotland in the palm of her hand. That was the day she sold-out Glasgow’s Hydro arena, filling it with 12,000 devoted followers for whom she could do no wrong. It was an eye-popping moment.
Just two months earlier, the SNP had been defeated in Scotland’s independence referendum; now it seemed that this could only be a temporary setback. The tide of history was rising fast and Nicola Sturgeon would be the midwife of independence. Nothing could, or would, stop her.
Nothing, that is, but time. Yesterday marked the end of the Scottish parliament’s summer term. The holidays cannot come soon enough for a first minister who, for the first time, looks vulnerable and at the mercy of, rather than in control, of events.
Her party has been in power for 10 years and as is always, unavoidably, the case, time is proving a merciless enemy. Ms Sturgeon has reached the point, dreaded by all governments, at which even answers and solutions and improvements do nothing more than remind voters that you’re now in the business of solving problems, and clearing up messes, that occurred on your watch. In such circumstances, even good news is easily discounted.
There is, for the first time, a palpable sense much of Scotland has had enough of Sturgeon and her party. It remains the dominant force north of the border – and it is equally important to note that support for independence remains around 45 percent – but, as matters stand, the party needs this summer holiday more than any of its rivals.
Earlier this week, Sturgeon announced her plans to “reset” her plans for a second independence referendum. Just four months ago she demanded the right to hold a referendum “once the terms of Brexit are clear”; now she accepts that IndyRef2 will not, indeed cannot, take place until after Brexit is finished.
She continues to insist, however, that the Scottish people be given a fresh chance to consider their constitutional future and that a referendum should be held before the next Holyrood elections, due in 2021. The “reset” in other words was not much of a reset at all.
This reflected the acutely awkward position in which Sturgeon finds herself: she had to reassure those Scots who do not wish another referendum that there was no imminent danger of there being one, while at the same time reminding the faithful that IndyRef2 remains on the table. As she told the BBC, she still thinks a second plebiscite “likely” before 2021.
But it is only a few months since she assured all and sundry that IndyRef2 was “highly likely”. In any case, even as Sturgeon announced a modest delay she also recommitted her party to building a new, broader, deeper, case for independence. IndyRef2, then, is both on and off, at least in theory.
It is a theory no-one is buying. The Scottish Conservatives, now the largest opposition party at Holyrood, could not believe their good fortune. If they had been given the chance to write Sturgeon’s IndyRef2 statement for her, they’d have written something very similar to the statement she delivered to the Scottish parliament.
“She is a much reduced figure” says one leading Tory. “Her credibility, and even more so, her authority is much reduced”. “Authority is a funny thing” says another senior Tory MSP, “It’s completely intangible yet everyone can tell when someone has it and everyone can tell when it has leaked away”.
Even some of the handful of people who have the first minister’s ear are worried that the SNP’s referendum strategy is hopelessly confused. “I think it would help to have one message and one signal rather than two” notes one of Sturgeon’s confidantes, drily.
Others are more sanguine, comforting themselves with the thought that Scots will change their minds once the full impact of Brexit becomes clear. “Let’s let the UK government drown in a heady cocktail of its own incompetence,” says an SNP figure close to Sturgeon. “People tend not to listen to the instructions about life jackets when settling into their seats for take-off. But heavy turbulence and heading for the sea? They make it a priority then.”
Nonetheless, there is no escaping the fact that the prospect of IndyRef2 hurt the SNP during the election campaign. Everyone accepted that the party would lose some seats; few thought the nationalists could lose 21. There was, in turn, little chance the party could, as it did in 2015, win 50 per cent of the vote. But 37 per cent was far below even gloomy expectations.
During the campaign, the SNP was trapped in a pincer movement: first past the post, which had so helped the party in 2015, now hurt it. All three opposition parties complained about Sturgeon’s constitutional “obsession”. The last thing Scotland needed was another divisive independence referendum. And, besides, what part of “We said No in 2014 and we meant what we said” did the first minister not understand?
This, coupled with the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn in Glasgow and other parts of the central belt, helped doom the SNP. The party won the election but it also lost it, largely because independence was now a weakness, not a strength. This was apparent all across Scotland; on the doorsteps IndyRef2 was the issue mentioned more often than all others combined. It had an impact. “I had members of my own family asking why we weren’t kicking this into the long grass,” one SNP cabinet minister wearily notes.
In the final days of the campaign, the SNP tried to park IndyRef2, arguing instead – and absurdly – that left-wing Scots should vote for the SNP even if they liked Jeremy Corbyn because the SNP had more in common with Corbyn than did the Scottish Labour party.
But independence is not the only issue now. It remains the defining, organising, principle around which Scottish politics is divided but Sturgeon’s government badly needs to return from the summer recess refreshed and armed with new thinking.
The Scottish economy is on the brink of recession; literacy and numeracy standards in schools have fallen alarmingly far alarmingly quickly; the NHS is increasingly held together with little more than surgical tape. On these, and much else, the SNP government looks tired and, worse, incompetent.
It is not quite fair to argue, as the opposition does, that the constitutional “obsession” means other issues and problems go unaddressed. But there is enough truth in it for voters to consider the idea intuitively plausible.
Most all, however, it is now clear that the SNP is not capable of driving events. Scotland’s future will be decided in Brussels and London just as much as it might be in Edinburgh. That, of course, could be a plausible argument for independence but it is not one that, at least for now, has the mark of victory about it.
Worse still, the election result ruined Sturgeon’s ability to speak for Scotland or present her party as the embodiment of the national will. You can’t make that claim on 37 per cent of the vote. That in turn means that the UK government will be further emboldened to refuse all demands for IndyRef2 in this parliament – however long that may last. The SNP has been stripped of its moral authority. It cannot, barring a sudden change in fortune and public opinion, shame London into conceding the referendum.
That means the 2021 Holyrood elections will be a battle for the right to hold, or block, a second referendum. But by then the SNP will have been in power for 14 years and, consequently, it is possible the Scottish people will be thirsting for a different government.
At present there is no alternative government-in-waiting but, as Sturgeon has discovered, three years is half a lifetime in politics.
This has been a depressing few weeks for Scotland’s first minister. She needs a holiday but she also needs to reinvent her government from within and renew its sense of purpose. That, as the ghosts of new Labour might remind her, is no easy task.