It's Groundhog Day in Holyrood. Amid criticisms about her administration's underwhelming 'Programme for Government,' Nicola Sturgeon has returned to her favourite hobby house: Scottish independence. Much like ABBA's reunion, the First Minister combined some new tunes with her greatest hits, declaring that May's election was an 'undeniable' mandate for such a plebiscite by the end of 2023 'once the Covid-19 crisis is passed'.
Steerpike is not surprised at Sturgeon's choice of priorities, preferring to have her civil servants devote their energies to indyref2 rather than letting Scots take their masks off when sat on a train. The SNP and its acolytes have had no compunction in undermining the Union at every opportunity throughout the pandemic; a strategy that has been great for poll numbers but has led to almost half of Europe’s top 20 Covid-19 hotspots being located in Scotland.
The reasons for such a muted public reaction are twofold. First is simple credibility: few outside the SNP diehards seriously believe that Sturgeon will be able to deliver a plebiscite by the end of 2023. Back in 2014 there were nine months of negotiations between Holyrood and Westminster on the referendum logistics before two years of frenzied campaigning ended in a verdict on an 84.6 per cent turnout. Given Covid's nasty habit of developing infectious strains like the Delta variant and suggestions of another lockdown or restrictions into 2022, how could the same kind of campaign with doorknocking and debate be fought with a similar turnout to ensure legitimacy?
The second reason is even more simple: we've heard it all before. Even before the 2016 Scottish elections the SNP were hinting at another vote, just 18 months after the first. In October 2016 Sturgeon opened a consultation on an Independence Referendum Bill; in May 2017 the Parliament voted for it. Legislation was then (unsurprisingly) postponed until 2018, nominally on the grounds of the Brexit negotiations but conveniently after the SNP experienced a reversal at the 2017 general election. In April 2019, Sturgeon proposed another referendum before the 2021 elections; in January 2020 she argued for legal recourse to force another poll.
Throughout all this we've been treated to a blizzard of words and an avalanche of promises, hailing the inevitability of Scexit and the necessity of separation. Sturgeon yesterday told MSPs there will be a 'detailed prospectus' for her tartan utopia; in the seven years since the last vote little has been done to advance this. The 650-page White Paper on which Alex Salmond's government fought their 2014 campaign contains key sections which have since been rendered out of date.
That prospectus was based on a model of 'soft' independence with Scotland continuing to have an open border with England and unrestricted access to the UK internal market, something Brexit no longer makes possible. Could the lack of any such plans in the years since be an indication that questions on issues like the border, currency and EU membership just cannot and will not be addressed?
It's fine of course for well-remunerated government ministers to enjoy the trappings of office today while promising independence tomorrow. But Steerpike wonders: how much longer are the poor bloody infantry of the SNP movement going to tolerate being marched up and down that particular hill?