Scotland would be an independent country today if only the SNP had made one simple promise. Back in 2014, as the referendum approached, it was clear that the party could win only at the price of its demise. Alex Salmond should have promised to disband the SNP if 'Yes' won the day. For those of us who disliked the SNP and Alex Salmond, but who favoured an independent Scotland, it would have been enough to bring us on board. Now, his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, is making the same mistake as she attempts to win a second referendum vote.
The SNP, of course, doesn't see things this way. Its supporters fail to understand why those who want independence wouldn't support the party. Of course, there are plenty such reasons, not least the dire state of the country's education system and the various debacles the SNP has found itself embroiled in.
But there's another, bigger question that the SNP refuses to pose: why would a newly independent Scotland country need a Scottish National Party any more than we need a United Kingdom National Party? Nigel Farage, for all his faults, saw this logic when he disbanded the Brexit party. He knew he had achieved what he set out to do. So why can't Sturgeon pledge to do the same?
After all, no self-confident sovereign state needs to keep proclaiming that it’s actually sovereign. That so many ex-colonies disastrously allowed their pre-independence parties and dogmas to dominate after they’d achieved their goal, as happened in Ireland, should have been a warning.
Of course my letters in The Scotsman had no impact. Was I being naïve? At the time – and ever since – much of the conversation about what the new country would do has been based on the implicit assumption that the future would be like the present, except more so. The SNP would take us into the EU, shadow the pound, keep the monarchy, and maintain good relations with its southerly neighbour. But why should the SNP – having delivered the result it set out to do – have to be the ones to lead the country beyond an independence vote?
Seven years ago, Salmond talked about a vote for 'Yes' as if it was also a vote for the SNP; you couldn’t favour independence without committing yourself to a whole set of views about what sort of country Scotland should be. Now, under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, the same thing is happening.
But why does it have to be this way? Those in favour of independence want something simple: for Scotland to be allowed to run its own affairs. But for Sturgeon this isn't enough: if you want independence you have to sign up for the SNP project. As a result, it will fail in its ambition to win freedom from Westminster.
I wince every time I hear people wondering what 'Nicola' is going to say next in her role as the nation’s matron. Will six people from two households be allowed to meet in a park next month? Will a masked resident of West Lothian be allowed to travel the few miles to Edinburgh to stand outside their granny’s window? Will any more errant footballers need to be rebuked from the daily bully pulpit?
We’ve been infantilised, you see, just as we were in 2014. The strong support for independence in the opinion polls seems all too often to be coupled with an equally strong desire to be led, to be instructed, to be deprived of agency and autonomy.
The SNP should try a different approach. The party should promise nothing, assume nothing and commit to nothing – except the creation of a state. It should admit that Scotland would probably be worse off for years than it would otherwise have been, that it would go through hard times, when 'blood, toil, tears and sweat' would be more likely than manna or an endless free supply of Irn Bru and wild venison.
An unappealing prospect, perhaps. However, consider an analogy. I’d guess that most readers of this piece are adults, who at some time decided to leave the comforts, familiarity and safety of home for the inconveniences, risks, expense and perhaps loneliness of adult life. A cost-benefit analysis, a net present value spreadsheet calculation, would have concluded that striking out for personal independence was a dreadful idea. Economic circumstances, or the pandemic, have caused many young people not to venture out in the first place, or to return if they did.
I sympathise, but who wants sympathy? Very few will be proud of their renewed or continuing dependent state; none will want to spend years regretting that they never changed it. It is surely better to have left and lost than never to have left at all.
There are good arguments against independence, or, to put it positively, for the union. Their cogency should be accepted by the pro-independence campaign, not wished away. If we’re adults, we should want the truth, with all its complexity and uncertainty. Most of us understand that most political decisions, for example EU membership, are of the 'on the one hand, on the other hand' type. This one offers the prospect of radical change, of disruption rather than cautious continuity. I quite understand that many will choose safety first, and I respect that inclination: it’s the widespread pro-independence lack of intellectual honesty, the Johnsonian cakeism if you will, that I deplore.