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If not now... never? Nicola Sturgeon on the battle for a second Scottish referendum

The First Minister discusses “utilitarian” nationalism, what Catalonia got wrong and Scotland's future. 

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Nicola Sturgeon is obsessed with her step count, she says, raising her wrist and tapping a red-banded Fitbit. During this strange, half-physical, half- digital Holyrood election campaign, which by necessity involved less dashing round the country than usual and more sitting in front of a Zoom screen, the device has kept her “on just the right side of fitness”. A previous effort to contract a jogging habit, which involved afternoon sessions around Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh dressed in first-ministerial Lycra, was short-lived. “Who knows, I might get back to it,” she says, in a tone that makes clear that this is extremely unlikely.

From a run to a walk – a neat metaphor to sum up the past 12 months or so for the SNP. In fact, there was a period in the second half of last year where things threatened to break into a sprint. For 20 consecutive polls support for Scottish independence was above 50 per cent, reaching as high as 58 per cent – close to the fabled 60 per cent thought to be Sturgeon’s favoured jumping-off point for a second referendum. Post-Brexit, mid-pandemic and pre-election, it seemed that Scots were picking up speed towards a post-Britain future.

But recent polls have shown a nation in reverse. Backing for independence has fallen to 50 per cent or lower, with some surveys even putting support for the Union narrowly ahead. Scots are, it seems, evenly split once more on the big, dominant question of who they are and who they want to be.

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

No one expects anything other than an SNP victory in the Holyrood election on 6 May. Throughout the campaign, and indeed for more years than the opposition parties care to remember, the Nationalists have enjoyed a comfortable lead of around 20 percentage points. After three terms and 14 years in power, they will certainly secure a fourth term, which will take them close to two decades in office. For Sturgeon, who has been First Minister since 2014, it will be a second full term as national dominie.

With the headline outcome in little doubt, the unanswered questions lie elsewhere. Will the Conservatives or Labour be in second place? Under Ruth Davidson’s punchy leadership, the Tories usurped Labour to become the official opposition. But Davidson has since quit Holyrood and after the election will take her place in the House of Lords. Her replacement, part-time football linesman Douglas Ross, who is currently the Westminster MP for Moray in north-east Scotland and is now seeking election as an MSP, is generally regarded to have had a disappointing match so far. The relentless Tory focus during the election campaign on opposing a second ­referendum, which worked so well for Davidson, has become somewhat wearing in Ross’s one-note, hectoring tone.

[See also: Will Scotland vote for independence? Our poll tracker]

Since it lost power to the SNP in 2007, Labour has struggled for relevance and run through a long list of ineffective leaders. But it seems finally to have found a potential star. Anas Sarwar is only 38, but has been a prominent centrist Labour politician for more than a decade, both as an MP and MSP and as deputy leader of the Scottish party. Elected as leader only in February, he has won plaudits for his energy, charisma and refusal to stick to the SNP-Conservative script. He has demanded the right to talk about the need for economic and educational recovery after the pandemic, rather than fixate on independence, and the polls suggest Labour might reclaim its role as the official opposition. The Scottish party’s tails are up again for the first time in over a decade.

Yet the more important question, whose answer will define the next term of Scottish politics and have the most consequence for Westminster, is whether the SNP can win an overall majority. The proportional Holyrood voting system was designed to avoid such an outcome, partly as an attempt to establish a different and more constructive culture to the one in London, but the Nats managed it under Alex Salmond in 2011, which led directly to the 2014 independence referendum.

If an overall majority is secured this time, Sturgeon will claim a democratic mandate for a second independence referendum, will have the parliamentary numbers to vote through relevant legislation, and will declare war on Boris Johnson, who insists he will not allow a referendum under any circumstances. The First Minister will make a powerful case – Scottish democracy against Westminster intransigence, a Union now kept together by force rather than ­voluntary membership – in her efforts to build momentum.

Even if the SNP falls short, the Scottish Greens – a sort of Nat mini-me party – will support a second vote; 65 or more MSPs are needed for a pro-independence majority at the 129-seat Edinburgh parliament.

There is, of course, an alternative outcome – that the pro-independence parties fail to secure a majority. That would be a shock and its aftermath would be ­tumultuous, for Sturgeon’s position as leader and for any ­prospect of a referendum not just within the next parliament but within the next ­generation. It would be a sign that the SNP has passed its electoral high-point and the unionist parties will be confident that they can finally start to make up ground. Sarwar certainly has his sights on the next Scottish election in 2026. The question for the Yes movement is this: If not now… never?

***

When I spoke to Sturgeon for my think tank Reform Scotland and the New Statesman, she looked displeased when I described the ­election as “more a procession than a competition”. “I hate listening to people talking about the election as if it’s a foregone conclusion,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like a procession rather than a competition. And maybe it’s my early experience in politics of losing every ­election I contested that just means that I can never and should never treat an election as if the outcome is certain.”

It is, in a sense, remarkable that this mix of caution and hunger remains. Sturgeon has been a cabinet minister for every one of the SNP’s 14 years in government. By the time the Tories and New Labour had reached this stage – in, respectively, the Thatcher and Blair eras – the wheels had fallen off the project, they were mired in scandal, and the electorate were weary of the same old faces.

“I often think it is a source of real frustration to many of our country’s commentators that despite all of the flaws and fragilities you all see in us, the public seem to still quite like and trust us,” Sturgeon told me. “The public can look at the record of the government, its strengths and weaknesses, can look at the circumstances in which our government has been operating and make allowances for the unforeseen things that have made it difficult to do certain things, particularly over the past year, and also be pretty blunt about mistakes and areas where they think we’ve not done well enough, but weigh all of that in the round and come to a balanced decision.”

The SNP has been helped by “a real failure of opposition in Scotland over the past number of years”, she said. “Neither of the main opposition parties have really managed to get into their stride, and on a very basic level even understand what the role of an opposition is, and how to succeed as an opposition and use that as the stepping stone to starting to be seen as a credible alternative government-in-waiting.”

Despite this, she recognises the quality of Anas Sarwar. “I’ll admit to the thing that traditionally, by common standards in politics, you’re not meant to: I like Anas and I have known [him] for some time. I think he’s very capable. I think the sitting on the fence and just pretending ‘I’m above the fray’ will only work for so long [for him]. But I think he’s got a lot of ability.”

Arguably, her main opponent in the next few years will not be Sarwar or Douglas Ross; it will be Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister stands stoutly in the way of a second referendum, adopting a “just say no” posture and developing plans for heightened UK government activity and spending north of the border. I put it to her that we could be in “unstoppable force meets immovable object” territory.

 

An eyebrow is arched. “Well, I’m not sure, looking at developments, that Boris Johnson is an immovable object. I think he is in what I can only politely describe as deep, deep do-do right now. That is a really serious set of very grave allegations swirling around [him] and you know, his longevity as prime minister may not be quite as certain as we might have thought.”

[See also: For England, Scotland and Wales the Union must be made to work. The alternative is chaos]

Regardless of who the individual is in No 10, it will for the foreseeable future at least be a Conservative, and none of them is likely to wander too far from the Johnson playbook. The SNP manifesto commits to holding a referendum by late 2023, but it’s hard to see Westminster agreeing to one within that relatively short timescale. Delay will only increase the pressure on Sturgeon from the more impatient members of her own party and the wider movement. Her old friend, predecessor and now bitter rival, Alex Salmond, leader of the breakaway Alba Party, is pushing hard for her to explore alternative and more aggressive pathways to breaking up the UK.

To her credit, she has always refused to consider the prospect of a Catalonia-style “wildcat” referendum, insisting the Scottish route to independence must be ­democratic, dignified, legal, and ­internationally accepted. She has no intention of changing that stance, and even hints at the possibility of further delay if the Covid pandemic demands it.

“In terms of the timing of a referendum, let me make this clear – and this frustrates some people on my own side of the independence argument – a referendum can only come after we’re out of this immediate Covid crisis,” she said. “I hope for all sorts of reasons that that will be in a timeframe of before the end of 2023, the first half of the parliamentary term, but I can’t guarantee that and the principle of the Covid situation coming first is one that will be my commitment for as long as it takes.”

With an eye on the post-election period, Sturgeon says that those on both sides of the argument must behave in ways that pay due respect to democracy and that build legitimacy into the process, with a particular warning to her own side that there are no “shortcuts or magic wands”. “The basic principles of democracy have to count for something. Persuasion involves being open and honest with people about the challenges and the barriers along the way, as well as the massive opportunities that it will give us if we do it properly. If we want to turn a majority for independence into independence, that has to involve that majority expressing itself in a legitimate legal process. So I have no truck with illegal wildcat referendums, because they wouldn’t deliver independence – Catalonia is living proof of that.”

***

If Westminster intransigence continues, the SNP intends to bring forward referendum legislation at Holyrood, and if necessary see the UK government in court. Sturgeon would rather avoid this outcome, but says “we will vigorously defend the rights of the Scottish parliament to allow people in Scotland to choose. But we’re only even talking about this because we’ve got the absurd situation of there being a question mark over whether or not Scottish democracy is respected, which tells its own story.”

She denies believing the polls need to show 60 per cent support for independence before a second referendum can confidently be held by the Yes side, although that figure was being briefed by aides for a while. While she would prefer a big win, the reality is that a simple majority is all that is needed. She “kind of feels, in my gut” that Scotland will vote by a healthy margin to leave the UK in a referendum, and that in the event of victory many No voters would get behind a national effort to make the new state work.

***

Of course, the unionist side will have its say before that point. In any referendum campaign it will forcefully point out the downsides of independence. EU membership, as the SNP intends, would create a trading border with the rest of the UK, which is currently the recipient of 60 per cent of Scotland’s exports; there are tricky questions over a new currency and its potential impact on savings, mortgages and the independent government’s ability to fund its borrowing and debts; joining the euro would likely require a programme of severe austerity in order to meet the single currency’s membership criteria. Wavering voters may yet take fright.

But in the short term Sturgeon is probably more worried about the impact nationalist ultras might have on her carefully assembled coalition of support for independence. The cause has benefited from a shift among 2014 No voters, disillusioned by Brexit, towards Yes. By their nature, these people are not hard-line in their backing for independence, and expect certain standards of behaviour, honesty and reasonableness from those leading the movement. Alex Salmond and his Alba Party allies may end up lacking a parliamentary presence, but they will continue to pressure Sturgeon to begin independence negotiations as soon as the election is over. And they are not without support in the SNP proper.

***

Sturgeon says: “I think if we’re sensible, we embrace people who are moving from No to Yes, or even open-minded to that, and listen to the reasons why people are moving and the issues they still require to be persuaded around in order to perhaps complete that journey,” she said. “If we ignore that, or say that, well, they’re not supporting it for the right reasons so we don’t want them, we’re doomed to failure.”

She describes herself as a “utilitarian nationalist” rather than an “existential” one, who thinks Scotland should be independent in order to pursue its own path rather than because of some ancient claim to nationhood.

 

“If I have a worry about the ‘super-majority’ cohort it is that, if I was in that unpersuaded but open-minded category, I would hear that they’re not interested in me, they’re not interested in persuading me, they’re just interested in how they can build over me to get to independence as quickly as possible. So it might be that the way I ­articulate it might be a lot less ­glamorous than some others who think it’s just about, you know, sort of arm-wrestling and flexing the muscle and demonstrating how committed we are. But actually, the patient, hard work, the committed way of doing it is the way that I think is going to deliver the success we want.”

By the evening of Saturday 8 May, Nicola Sturgeon will know whether that patience and hard work has paid off, and whether her defining opponent for the next few years will reside in Downing Street or occupy the restless pro- independence benches behind her, agitating for a change at the top of the SNP. Whether the party is picking up speed or slouching towards Bannockburn is, in the end, a matter for the people of Scotland. We are about to hear them speak.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman’s Scotland editor

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

[See also: How is the SNP's quest for Scottish independence viewed in Europe and the US?]

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's Scotland editor.

This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?