3 January 2020

Where next for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP?

By

Doors Open Day in Glasgow happens every September and gives members of the public a rare and welcome opportunity to see inside some of our most iconic and well-known buildings, to which access is usually restricted. In 2015 I and my family joined a guided tour of Glasgow Sheriff Court, an imposing granite structure near the banks of the Clyde which I’d passed often but never – thankfully – seen inside.

Joining our little group was another family, who had evidently just attended another, unrelated, event in George Square. We knew this for two reasons: they were carrying – almost waving – polystyrene banners declaring “Indyref2”. And the other giveaway was that the two adults talked in deliberately loud voices to each other about how wonderful life would be in an independent Scotland, the achievement of which was only one more plebiscite away. At one point the father speculated loudly – ostensibly to his partner but we all knew who his intended audience was – that Scottish granite had not been used in the construction of the building because of English perfidy.

This is where Scottish nationalists are similar to vegans – whether on Twitter or in real life, the first thing they want everyone else to know about them is that they support Scottish independence.

All of this was only a year after the historic referendum in which Scots had rejected independence. Legislation for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union hadn’t even passed through parliament yet, but already large demonstrations were being organised by the losing side of 2014. “What do we want?” “A second referendum!” “How do we justify it?” “Who cares…?”

The same month, none other than the First Minister herself, Nicola Sturgeon, raised the prospect of another referendum by declaring, “Our manifesto [for the following year’s Scottish parliament elections] will set out what we consider are the circumstances and the timescale on which a second referendum might be appropriate.” No wonder her excitable and loyal troops were already attending public demonstrations and regaling uninterested strangers with their views.

As Sturgeon marches her troops back to the top of the hill (for the third time in four years) and demands that Boris Johnson legislates to allow a second independence referendum, it is worth bearing in mind the reasons why the SNP leader is betting everything on getting her own way, even after she repeatedly promised during the 2014 campaign that Scotland would not be further divided by more referendums on the issue.

I would ask all Ms Sturgeon’s many admirers in England (particularly and inevitably in London) who sympathise with her demand that Scotland’s pro-Remain majority not be taken out of the EU against its will to pay close attention here: Nicola Sturgeon is demanding a second independence referendum for one reason and one reason only: she is the leader of the SNP.

And as leader of the SNP she knows that the only thing her followers want to know is, when will independence arrive? No one ever joined the SNP in order to bring down hospital waiting lists or improve standards in schools. Can you imagine the response of her party’s grassroots if the First Minister were to announce that she would, after all, respect the will of the Scottish people as expressed in the 2014 referendum? She would be out of her job within a month.

So she has no choice but to say what her activists want her to say, even if she doesn’t go quite as far in her demands as most of them would like. For Sturgeon is not stupid. She has insisted that a non-legally binding referendum held without the approval of the UK government – along the lines of the 2017 Catalonian referendum – should not be pursued, and that her party should seek the legal and international recognition that a victory under the 2014 rules would confer.

She is right to insist on this. It is also notable that she is on record as opposing another referendum unless and until her party can be confident of winning it. Polling on the issue points to a stubborn (though narrow) unionist majority and Sturgeon understands the calamitous effect a second defeat would have on her party and her movement. But she has been the victim, not the instigator, of political events, forced by the Brexit debate into demanding a second referendum earlier than she would have liked and in less favourable circumstances than she expected.

At this point it is important to recall the three crucial factors that resulted in David Cameron giving the green light to the first independence referendum. The first was Alex Salmond’s unexpected and impressive victory at the 2011 Holyrood elections, achieving a majority in a system that was specifically designed to prevent such a thing happening.

The second was that both UK and Scottish governments agreed that a referendum was a reasonable and democratic solution to a constitutional impasse. This position was dependent on the third factor: such a referendum had never happened in the 304-year history of the Union.

All of these factors – not one, not a majority of them, but all of them – would have to be repeated in order to justify a second referendum. In the case of the third factor, a significant amount of time – say, a generation – would have to elapse before it could be considered resolved.

Although the SNP have won a majority of seats in Scotland at three general elections since 2014, in fact this isn’t as impressive a feat as it sounds. One party or another has won a majority of seats on a minority of the votes in every general election of my lifetime. In 2017 the SNP won a majority with just 37% of the vote; in 1983, Labour did the same with just 35%. So, impressive, but no cigar.

And if the crucial international approval which Sturgeon seeks for a new referendum is predicated on bilateral agreement between Holyrood and Westminster, she is in effect offering a veto to each. Agreement, by definition, cannot be forced out of a reluctant UK government; Johnson will either agree to a referendum or he will not (spoiler: he will not). If Sturgeon respects the devolution settlement she will accept that each administration must be free to make its own policy within the terms of the Scotland Act.

Sturgeon is clever enough to understand all this.

Brexit is the issue on which she’s chosen to hang her case for a second referendum, but make no mistake – had Britain voted Remain in 2016, the first Minister would today be making just as strong a case for independence based on the renewal of Trident, or Boris Johnson as prime minister, or the continuations of austerity (all three have, in fact, been suggested by leading nationalists to justify a second referendum).

Hogmanay TV in Scotland features a perennial favourite sketch show called “Only An Excuse”. That could be the name given to every recent SNP manifesto: whatever the excuse used to hang its demands for another referendum, it’s less important than the obligation on any SNP leader to make the demand. Without the campaign for independence, the SNP are nothing. And without a persistent demand for another referendum, Nicola Sturgeon would be out of a job.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'