Stephen Daisley

Nicola Sturgeon is taking Scottish nationalists for a ride

Nicola Sturgeon is taking Scottish nationalists for a ride
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There’s an episode of Father Ted in which the simple but endearing Father Dougal gets stuck on a milk float booby-trapped with a bomb. The finest clerical minds in Craggy Island convene to devise a solution and as they discount each increasingly far-fetched fix, the well-meaning Father Beeching pipes up: ‘Is there anything to be said for another Mass?’.

Nicola Sturgeon evidently studied at the Beeching Seminary for Crisis Management. Every time there’s an SNP conference looming, her advisors agonise over how to string along the Yes faithful a little longer, until the boss sighs: ‘Is there anything to be said for another Indyref 2 statement?’

The Scots Nats gather in Edinburgh tomorrow for their Spring conference and, what do you know, Sturgeon has delivered a statement on Indyref 2. She has not, as has been reported, announced another independence referendum for 2021. Instead she strung along her followers once more with a heavily-caveated pledge to call for a fresh vote sometime in the next two years, subject to certain circumstances. In the meantime, her government will legislate the framework of this non-existent referendum and set up a citizens’ assembly where ordinary members of the public can suggest improvements to devolved governance. (‘Isn’t this literally your job?’ would not be an unreasonable response.)

Is there anything to be said for this Indyref 2 statement? If you’re a political commentator, absolutely. It is a piece of strategy and artful in its own way. It gives the impression of doing something which it factually does not. In theory, it buys Sturgeon some respite from her hardliners and distracts the opposition once more from her record in government. What, though, if you are one of those Scottish nationalists being taken for a ride? There are some indications that even true believers are beginning to call time on Sturgeon’s triangulations. Wings over Scotland, a pro-independence website popular with SNP members, was notably unimpressed:

Summary of FM's speech: "We want another indyref by 2021. The UK government is refusing to give us a Section 30 order for one. We're planning to get around that by [inaudible mumble]."

— Wings Over Scotland (@WingsScotland) April 24, 2019

Such frustration is understandable. This is not the first time Sturgeon has dangled Indyref 2 before her supporters. It’s not even the first time she’s pledged to hold one within two years. To go by the roars and cheers behind her throughout First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood today, her parliamentary group has been sated. They know what she knows, what her opponents know and what the more reality-based of her grassroots know: there will be no second referendum before the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. The UK Parliament will not grant a Section 30 order, Sturgeon is too cautious to dare an illegal referendum and there is not enough time for such a plebiscite to be clear of Brexit and the next election. 

The best hope for separatists now is retaining their majority at Holyrood after 2021. The Scottish Parliament has been annexed to the pro-independence movement but the non-nationalist parties need only five more seats to wrest back control. If nationalists lose their grip on the Scottish Parliament, it really will be another generation before there’s a second referendum. Even the most ardent nationalist has to start questioning whether they’re on a hiding to nothing with Sturgeon. The British state is in disarray as it half-tries to deliver the outcome of a referendum held almost three years ago. Cabinet government has broken down, parliament has broken down, the entire political system has broken down. Against this backdrop and just five years after her predecessor convinced 45 per cent of Scots to back separation, Sturgeon still cannot deliver the goods. If not now, when? 

One of the most pivotal interviews in Sturgeon’s career, although not acknowledged as such, was a sit-down with the BBC’s Evan Davis one week before the 2015 General Election. The SNP was about to crush Scottish Labour in an historic landslide and Sturgeon’s personal polling was in bigger-than-Jesus territory but Davis wanted to test what she was all about.

How would she feel, he asked, if her political career ended without independence? She would be ‘disappointed’ and ‘philosophical’ but, ultimately, ‘If I do my best every day I’m in office, hopefully one day, many years from now, I’ll look back and say, whatever the eventual outcome, I did my best and at the end of the day I think that’s all a politician can do’.

This is how a primary school pupil speaks about not being picked for the nativity play. It is not how the leader of a nationalist movement talks about their country’s independence. At some point, her followers will have to confront the Sturgeon of that answer. 

Still her statement was much worse for Scotland. To the London commentariat — some of whom have even been to Scotland, so you know they’re experts — Sturgeon is a progressive icon, what Westminster could be but isn’t because of the damned voters. But far from a radical, Sturgeon is a dull conservative who entrenches a status quo marked by inequality and outcomes in health and education that her lefty champions would deem proof of neoliberal callousness or incompetence in a Tory.

Independence isn’t coming soon but Sturgeon must be seen to go through the motions, so the next two years will play out the same way the last two years did — a government armed to the teeth with transformational powers play-acting a constitutional war against Westminster to keep the peace inside the SNP.

Devolution is 20 years old this year. Twenty years for this.