It is late August 2017, one week before the Scottish parliament returns from summer recess. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, has called a surprise press conference. She has also invited all SNP MSPs and MPs, and the leaders of the opposition parties.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming along to Bute House today. I have, I believe, something important to say.
“It will be of no surprise to any of you when I say that I am and always will be a passionate believer in Scottish independence. This is not because I think we are better than anyone else – and certainly not our friends across the rest of the UK. And neither is it because of any ‘blood and soil’ view of the world.
“I could have joined the Labour Party. In fact, I very nearly did. When I was still at high school my English teacher brought in membership forms for me to sign. Perhaps it was my stubborn, contrarian nature – must you nod quite so vigorously, Peter? – that led me to think ‘fuck you, I’m going to join the SNP’.
“But it was also a reaction to what was going on in British politics at that time. Margaret Thatcher was being returned with huge majorities, even though Scotland repeatedly rejected the Tories at the ballot box. Politics, it seemed, was something that was being done to us rather than for us. This, to me, was unacceptable – I felt that a nation as old, proud, successful, and respected as Scotland should be in a position to make her own decisions, her own choices.
“Again, this is not any kind of anti-English point. I didn’t agree with Mrs Thatcher’s ideology, policies or tone. I watched men of my father’s generation in the West of Scotland lose their jobs as the factories and shipyards and steelyards closed. Stripped of their identity, their dignity, their future, the impact on them and their families was a tragedy. It’s hard to get over that, to forgive it or forget it, when it’s all around you.
“Many south of the border – and some in Scotland – saw what Mrs Thatcher was aiming for and liked it: an economy hammered into shape for the modern world, a capital-owning democracy in which each looked out for him or herself, favouring the private over the public. That’s fine – we all have our views. That’s politics. That’s life.
“But I believe that for most Scots, this ideology was antithetical to our view of the Good Society. We value community, mutuality, the common weal. We’re not afraid of change, but we try not to forget there are human beings at the heart of it. And we don’t lose sight of the fact that the vulnerable usually suffer the most.
“So that is why I joined the SNP. To give Scots the opportunity to make their own choices – and their own mistakes! My ideal has not really changed across the years. It remains one of an independent, self-confident nation working closely with our friends across the UK, the EU and beyond, based on those values. For Scotland to have its say. For Scots to have their say.
“Which brings me to my main point. It’s been a hell of a last few years, right? First, the independence referendum, a passionate, exhilarating and, yes, bruising experience, that forced us all to think hard about who we are and why. My side came close, but not close enough. The campaign created some quite deep divisions that have not yet healed.
“Since then we have had two general elections, a Holyrood election and a referendum on Brexit. The last of these went off like a bomb. It is the defining point of today’s politics, hanging over us like a mushroom cloud. It has destroyed the Conservative government, divided the Labour Party and at the moment it’s hard to see it leading the UK to anything other than outright catastrophe.
“Again, in Scotland, this is something that’s being done to us rather than for us. We have not given our consent. On June 23 last year, 62 per cent of Scots voted to stay in the EU. But because 53 per cent of English people wanted to leave – a pretty narrow majority, you’ll agree – we are being dragged towards the cliff edge. This is due to the sheer size of England – its population of 50 million dwarves our five million.
“I have tried, in the year or so since the referendum, to secure a deal from the British government that recognises Scotland’s differing position. I have, to be honest, had no success. None. They’re not listening. They’re not interested.
“This, to me, makes the case for thinking again about the 2014 result. I believe that, once the outlines of the final Brexit deal become clear, Scots should be allowed to vote for the future they want. Should we be outside the EU as part of a UK that has lost much of its global influence, that has voluntarily excluded itself from the most successful single market on earth, and that pursues the kind of brutal, low-tax economy that we rejected in the 1980s? Or should we opt for self-determination, with all the hurdles that would entail, but with the guarantee that in future the big decisions are taken by us and us alone? Should we, to coin a phrase, ‘take back control’?
“However. The general election in June was tough for my party. We lost 40 per cent of our seats and half a million votes, just two years after the best Westminster result in our history. It is a privilege to be First Minister, but I work long, hard hours. I genuinely give it my best. I won’t deny that the result hurt.
“I went on holiday this summer determined to have a break. Like the rest of you, I really needed one. I read a bunch of crime fiction – if you haven’t read Oliver Harris’s Nick Belsey books, you really should – which gave me some time out. And maybe some space and perspective. And so the reason for asking you here today is to tell you and the people of Scotland this: I get it. I really do. Most Scots do not feel ready for another referendum. And that includes a fair number who are in favour of independence.
“It is also clear that our long national wrangle over the constitution has sometimes crowded out serious debate about areas of public policy that affect our lives every day – our schools and hospitals, our economy.
“So here’s what I’ve decided. I do not intend to hold another referendum during this parliament. It’s off the table. Up to the election in 2021 my government will focus exclusively on our domestic agenda. I care deeply about education reform and will personally drive the changes that are needed to give all our children the best chance in life. I will work to make our NHS better and more patient-friendly.
“I will ask you to come with me on this journey, as it will mean making some hard choices, including on taxation. We can’t do everything. It’s a question of priorities. As Scots, I hope we can agree among us what those are.
“If Brexit must happen, then I will continue to push the UK government to devolve as many of the repatriated powers to the Scottish government as possible. In areas such as agriculture and fisheries, we will seek to show what could be done if we were truly our own masters.
“I have come to the conclusion that Scotland will only vote for independence when it has greater confidence in itself and its track record; when it can look at what it has achieved as a nation under devolution and grasp how much more could be done if the next step were taken.
“The decision, when it comes – as I believe it inevitably will – must be a positive one, taken with open eyes and an awareness of the challenges as well as the opportunities. Not a rejection of the United Kingdom, but an embrace of the thrilling potential of what might come next.
“So that’s it. Over the next few days I will announce a major reshuffle, bringing into my government some of the fresh young talent on the backbenches. I will be meeting with the opposition leaders to seek agreement on key areas of public policy reform. And I will be honest with the Scottish people about what I’m trying to do, what’s being achieved, and what isn’t going so well.
“It’s time for a grown-up conversation. I am going to put Scotland first, hoping that in time you will trust me to take Scotland further.