Patience. Pragmatism. Perseverance. Nationalist leaders do not, as a general rule, use such terms to inspire their troops. Not, at any rate, if they think the day of national emancipation is imminent. Yet these were precisely the terms in which Nicola Sturgeon spoke to her party’s conference in Glasgow this week.
That reflects one of the paradoxes of our time. Politically-speaking it is possible to march closer to independence without actually getting closer to it. Or, to put it another way, the road to independence is shorter now but also littered with more, and larger, obstacles than was the case as recently as 2014. This is the conundrum in which Sturgeon finds herself: the route is simple but the road is not open.
Brexit, again, makes the political argument for independence simpler while also, as it turns out, making it seem an even more complicated business than it was four years ago when, as you will recall, the majority of Scottish voters concluded that, amongst other considerations, independence was too risky and too freighted with uncertainty to be worth the gamble. In that respect, I too underestimated the shambles into which know-nothing Brexiteers would throw British politics.
In that sense, Brexit could be thought akin to sowing the land with salt; a punishment and a warning, certainly, but also – since this is our own land too – a self-inflicted wound of significant proportions. If Brexit is exemplary, it is so in all the worst ways. Look at this calamity, Scotland, and think twice about leaving the United Kingdom. It won’t be as quick or as simple or as inexpensive a business as you think.
That might even be true. And yet it is not enough, not nearly enough. It would make for a Unionism that is simultaneously cold and nervous. A sneering Unionism reliant upon calculators for its artillery. And besides, while it has long been the case that some independence supporters would cheerfully live in caves if that was the price of independence, the absurdity of that stance loses some of its salience if the alternative is a UK polity equally intent on turning us into a nation of troglodytes the better to further some eccentric definition of sovereignty and “taking back control”.
Nicola Sturgeon’s preferred Brexit position is not, in fact, very different from Ruth Davidson’s. She would prefer it not to happen at all but, if it must, it should involve remaining – as far as is possible – in the single market and customs union. As it happens, as recently as 2015 that was the orthodox Brexit view held by many of the people who would become prominent Brexiteers. No-one back then talked about a bloody “WTO Brexit”. Norway was one model; Switzerland another. It’s worth remembering this if only because it is a reminder that Brexit has been hijacked by the Brexiteers themselves.
Still, the structural advantages enjoyed by the SNP were evident in this speech. The party can take credit for everything that is good, or even moderately useful, in Scotland while pinning the blame for everything that’s disagreeable on “Westminster” and a “system” that prevents the full flowering of the Scottish people. Good news us; bad news them. Only the SNP will stand up for Scotland.
As with most political speeches, there is some sleight of hand here. When Sturgeon boasts of her government’s progressive credentials she happily omits to mention that some of them are made easier by the unique way in which Scotland is funded. I don’t, of course, expect anything different. Those are the conventions.
And, in any case, there was a coherence to Sturgeon’s speech that contrasted significantly with most of the speeches delivered at the Conservative conference last week. When you watch Sturgeon talk you know exactly the kind of politics in which she believes and you gain a clear picture of the kind of country she thinks Scotland can – and should – be. This is a rarer gift than you might think.
Some of it – and here the contrast with Jeremy Corbyn is especially acute – is even achievable. I have my differences with it and I long ago tired of the incessant wha’s-like-us boosterism that is an inescapable feature of every SNP gathering (it should hardly require saying that Tory ra-ra-raing in Birmingham was equally odious) but your mileage may vary.
Similarly, it is not entirely churlish to note that education – notionally Sturgeon’s chief domestic policy priority – was scarcely mentioned in this speech. Nor was there much more than a passing reference to the report of her own growth commission that was published earlier this year. That was supposed to be a document recasting the economic argument for independence. If it has not disappeared without a trace, it is also a report that’s now more likely to be mentioned by Unionists than nationalists. It admitted too much reality, you see.
But, as I say, in times such as these there is something gratifying about speeches made by politicians who are obviously adults. A low bar but, like all such obstacles, one worth clearing.
There is a distinction to be made between the majority of the people who actually attend SNP conference and the keyboard-dwelling Cybernats and flag-people who have been marching through Scotland’s cities all summer demanding freedom now. Despite what some people think, the activists – the ones who do the actual work – are generally a patient lot. Many of them have been waiting all their lives for independence; they know they can wait a little longer.
Nicola Sturgeon, who joined the party in 1986 when she was still in high school, knows this. Her credentials and commitment to the cause are unimpeachable. So when she counsels patience, the party will listen. The SNP is a kind of family and, moreover, one that’s more united than most actual families. The Braveheart-and-bullshit brigade do not run the show and at its best – a standard not always reached, admittedly – the SNP is the most boring nationalist party in Europe. You can disagree with them on plenty while allowing there are worse things than that.
Of course some things may change and of course the party must be kept on manoeuvres. Brexit is a disaster but also an opportunity. To the lifeboats, citizens! But there is also a growing acceptance that in the absence of something turning up, there’ll be no new independence referendum before the next Holyrood election.
The possibility there might be one at some future point, however, remains real. Indeed, Theresa May’s mantra “now is not the time” concedes as much. The 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections will be fought at a time when – at long last! – the shape of Brexit is just about clear enough. If that election produces a pro-IndyRef2 majority elected on a clear promise to hold such a referendum, it is difficult to see how the UK government could enjoy the kind of moral authority that could prevent another plebiscite.
At present, the opinion polls do not suggest there will be such a majority but it will, as matters stand, be a damn close run thing. The saving grace is that by then the SNP will have been in office for 14 years and, like all governments of such an age, be showing some signs of decrepitude. Equally, for now anyway, the more Nicola Sturgeon talks about independence the more she hardens opposition to her plans. Leveraging Brexit for her own aims is, while understandable, also risky and in some vague sense a form of gamesmanship. (This is the same reason the campaign for a so-called “People’s Vote” seems doomed to me; it’s not quite the done thing.)
This was a speech organised around the central theme of this conference: “Hope”. Now hope is not, as Nicola Sturgeon knows, enough but it’s a start. Even more so at a time when, with some reason, “Don’t Know” continues to outperform Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn when the question is “Who would make the better prime minister?” (These are banner days, you understand, for “Don’t Know”.)
Now, sure, it is easy – and perhaps necessary – to scoff at the invitation to consider “just how much more hope will be possible” after independence and note that this is a good thing since greater supplies of hope might also be necessary. In gloomy times even a candle can be a powerful thing.
It’s not enough, of course, or at any rate not enough right now. The first minister knows she has time, however. These are unusual times and will remain so for some time yet. It remains entirely possible, I think, that Nicola Sturgeon’s ambitions will be advanced in England just as surely as they may be in Scotland. These things are linked, of course, and matters for another post on another day.