Alex Massie

How long can Nicola Sturgeon pretend that nothing has changed?

How long can Nicola Sturgeon pretend that nothing has changed?
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Is Nicola Sturgeon, not to put too fine a point on things, losing it? Just six weeks ago this question would have seemed preposterous. But that was before the SNP’s disastrous election result. Yes, disastrous. Sure, everyone expected the SNP to lose votes and seats but no-one really thought they could lose 21; no-one really thought their share of the vote would fall by 13 points or that they would misplace almost half a million voters. No-one thought their result would be so very much worse than expected. No-one includes the opposition points and, pertinently, the SNP itself. 

And in response to this, what has Nicola Sturgeon said? Only this: nothing has changed. This is a line that will not, cannot, hold. The first minister says she will reflect on the election result and will not be bullied into giving the newspapers 'quick headlines'. It is premature to suppose that the election ruins the prospects of there being a second independence referendum before the next Holyrood elections. 

Once upon a time, the SNP was divided between so-called gradualists and so-called fundamentalists. The former group, which was led by Alex Salmond, believed devolution offered the SNP an opportunity; the latter considered it at best a distraction at best, and possibly something worse than that, from the pure business of arguing for independence. The gradualists, it is now obvious, won. 

Those wars, long since thought settled, are breaking out all over again. It is a contest between the pragmatists and the dreamers - between, if you will, the lions and the unicorns - and, right now or at least until such time as emerges from her period of denial, Nicola Sturgeon looks as though she’s on the side of the unicorns, queen of the new fundamentalists. 

Because when pro-Union parties win 61 per cent of the vote and when a new poll for the Daily Record suggests just 27 per cent of voters support a second referendum and when your own party’s lead over the Conservatives has fallen from 35 to eight points in just two years, only a very special kind of thinker can maintain the fiction that nothing has changed. 

Sure, the Scottish parliament passed a motion permitting the Scottish government to press ahead with its plans for IndyRef2 but this, children, has been superseded by events. It is no longer operable; it is an ex-mandate. It would be one thing if the SNP were evidently representing the plainly-expressed will of the Scottish people but, on 37 per cent of the vote, they’re offering no such representation. 

And yet, despite that and despite John Swinney admitting that pushing IndyRef2 plainly hurt the SNP in this campaign, the party leadership is painfully reluctant to let go of the matter. Unionists, who often assume the SNP must be stuffed with Tartan Talleyrands, cannot believe their good fortune. 

Which is also why some old SNP hands are in a position of something close to baffled despair today. What’s going on? For the first time in years, serious people in the SNP are asking serious questions about the party’s leadership. Sturgeon is in danger of misreading the mood of her party as thoroughly as she is misreading the mood of the country. 

Some of this reflects other divisions within the party. It hardly seems coincidental that the cautious faction is represented by those SNP politicians whose careers have been built in rural Scotland while the dreamers and unicorns are largely based in Glasgow and the central belt. The latter faction ran the SNP’s campaign in this election; a campaign so inept it descended into drivel: 'If you like Jeremy Corbyn, vote SNP'. That is to say, it was a campaign prepared to sacrifice the countryside to help save SNP souls in Glasgow and Lanarkshire. A bold move, certainly. 

People change, of course. The party’s new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, was once a fundamentalist, albeit an unusual one being an investment banker too. Now he’s a gradualist, arguing that a second independence referendum should be seen as an 'insurance policy' against a catastrophic Brexit. But it’s an odd form of insurance policy you actually want to see redeemed. 

Still, this will be the emerging line, I suspect: IndyRef2 must remain on the table until such time as the impact of Brexit can properly be measured. At that point, the Scottish people will have a right to determine their own constitutional future. Not right now, but definitely then. 

In other words, then, the election result was just a flesh wound and, like Monty Python’s Black Knight, Nicola Sturgeon has no need to rethink her strategy or do much to acknowledge the manner in which it has developed in ways that are not necessarily to her advantage. 

This is daring since it amounts to telling the electorate they are wrong. As Theresa May is discovering, nothing has changed is an inadequate reaction to an election in which many things palpably have changed. It is odd, to put it mildly, to see Nicola Sturgeon making the same mistake. 

Brexit changes things too. If - for the sake of argument - the 'extreme Brexit' of which Sturgeon has warned is replaced by something closer to Ruth Davidson’s 'open Brexit' in which much of Britain’s trading relationship with the continent remains much as it is, what does Sturgeon do then? Previously she suggested that some kind of single-market compromise might remove the justification for a second independence referendum. Does she still believe that? Or is it more probable that, having been given what she said she wanted, the SNP leader would find fresh grounds for demanding what she really wanted? 

The longer she insists on Schrodinger’s referendum - both alive and not alive - the worse it will be for Sturgeon. Because, in the end, this is the oldest and largest question of all: do you trust the first minister? Until now, even many of her opponents have been happy to give Sturgeon the benefit of the doubt on that front. Not so much any longer. And once trust begins to fray, everything else can unravel remarkably quickly. 

Parking IndyRef2 until after the 2021 Holyrood elections, however, is also a high-risk proposition. It ensures that those elections become a proxy referendum on another referendum at a time when, by then, the SNP will have been in power for 14 years. At present - though this can of course change - that does not seem a propitious prospectus for returning a parliament with a pro-IndyRef2 majority. 

And failing to win in 2021 in turn ensures that if independence is ever delivered, someone else will be its midwife. Nicola Sturgeon’s race will have been run and lost years before. That helps explain, I think, why despite all the evidence available it remains hard for her to walk away from a referendum that, more than any other issue, hurt the SNP in this election. In poker parlance, Sturgeon is pot-committed but being so does not actually improve her chance of winning. 

But what else can she do? Her belief in independence is unfalsifiable. It is existential, not utilitarian even if she also believes it to be utilitarian. This too is a fundamental truth and one further reason why accepting the reality of a changed situation is so difficult that the first minister is prepared to make something of a ridiculous spectacle of herself.