Why support for Scottish independence is more fragile than it appears

The Yes movement’s increasingly fractious divisions threaten to alienate the moderate voters the SNP needs to win over. 

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Not so long ago Mike Russell, the SNP president and constitution minister, privately boasted to the Australian high commissioner that a second Scottish independence referendum would be held in late 2021. It’s easy to imagine Russell, the kind of character one imagines has a fireplace portrait of himself reclining in leopard skin, luxuriating in the role of global player, mere months away from rocking the world.

Let’s presume, charitably, that he simply got carried away – let Mike be Mike. When details of the conversation emerged last month following a freedom of information request, they were met with bemusement. The SNP is certainly on course to win an overall majority in May’s Holyrood election, with a manifesto pledge to hold another referendum, but no one – up to and including Nicola Sturgeon – expects or believes a vote on separation will be held this year.

This reflects a wide and growing sense of confusion and disorder. Despite the SNP’s dominance in the polls and support for independence ostensibly sitting above 50 per cent, the Yes campaign is in a mess. A new poll published today in the Scotsman suggests the turmoil is finally having an impact on the wider electorate. Although support for independence, when the undecided are excluded, sits at 53 per cent (47 per cent when they are included), the number of people who think the SNP is united has dropped by eight points, while those who think the party is divided has increased by six points. The Teflon is at last showing signs of wear.

No wonder. Here are some of the matters that have yet to be agreed between the party and the Yes movement and that are the source of bitter internal (and spikily public) dispute: the timing of a referendum; whether and how, if a referendum is blocked by Westminster, to prosecute an alternative path – through the courts, the ballot box, or even an unauthorised wildcat vote; the currency an independent Scotland should use; the new state’s economic policy; the position on accepting a share of UK debt; whether to rejoin the EU; whether Sturgeon continues to be the right leader; the manner in which the SNP is being run; the continued role of Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell as party chief executive; whether Alex Salmond has been the victim of a conspiracy organised by the leadership.

[See also: While Boris Johnson remains in charge, the Scottish independence movement is unstoppable]

There’s more, including the thorny debate over trans rights and self-identification, but that’s quite enough to get the picture. One significant consequence of all this disagreement is that a variety of new Yes groups have sprung up with the intention of establishing alternative and competing sources of ideas and power. If there was indeed a possibility that a referendum could be held in, say, September, this fracturing would be an urgent problem. Even without that prospect it is introducing disruption, unpredictability and challenge at a crucial juncture.

The newest and arguably most ominous creation is Now Scotland, which describes itself as a “grass-roots, non-party campaign… a national umbrella organisation for all those active in the struggle for Scottish emancipation. Let’s make 2021 the year that really moves the indy movement forwards and prizes [sic] the jaws of Westminster apart.”

Now Scotland claims it wants to unite all those in favour of independence, but it clearly stands in opposition to Sturgeon. One of its committee members is Craig Murray, the controversial former UK diplomat turned blogger, who is a vocal supporter of Salmond’s fight against the First Minister and the Scottish government. One of Murray’s recent articles – he is currently being tried for contempt of court over his coverage of Salmond’s trial – was headlined “Only A Corrupt Lord Advocate Stands Between Peter Murrell and Prison”.

Another founder is George Kerevan, a left-wing former SNP MP who has been highly critical of the leadership. Among Kerevan’s more outlandish positions is that May’s election should be a “national plebiscite on independence, after which we withdraw MPs from London and open negotiations for Scexit”. This view is supported by other hardliners, including the rebel MP Angus MacNeil.

Now Scotland is for those who are already deeply committed to the cause – the cyber-nats and the street-marchers. It is certainly unlikely to persuade the unconvinced; quite the opposite. Talk of “emancipation” and of prising “the jaws of Westminster apart” speaks to a form of victimhood nationalism that views the UK state as a hostile actor holding Scotland against its wishes. “We want independence in order to have democracy in Scotland,” says one of its committee members. 

This is the kind of language and tone that Sturgeon has sought to change in order to build a winning coalition. Indy-curious voters will consider the issue from a variety of positions, but few view Scotland as any kind of captive, or Westminster as monstrous. The argument for independence, so carefully and successfully shaped by Sturgeon, is as much about technocracy and good governance as it is about freedom. Independence would be greeted, even by some of those who voted for it, with more sadness than glee.

[See also: Is the SNP about to implode?]

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Another point of contention within the Yes movement is the Growth Commission, set up by Sturgeon to add credibility and realism to the economic case for independence. Under its chairman Andrew Wilson it shifted the SNP’s approach, warning of bumps ahead, and suggesting a period of spending restraint would be required. Wilson has become something of a hate figure for the rebels, many of whom are socialists and see Scottish nationalism as a left-wing project that would reject many of the norms of free-market capitalism. Their judgement is that Scotland is considerably to the left of England on many policy matters.

A group of economists has set up the Scottish Currency Group to challenge the Wilson approach to monetary policy. Its membership includes Richard Murphy, once an informal adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, who has attacked the commission’s “deeply neoliberal view of Scotland after independence”. Where Wilson recommends retaining the pound for ten years while the economy is prepared for the switch to a separate currency, the Currency Group wants to move far faster. Tensions between the two sides are high. Whether the Corbynite economics so heavily rejected on both sides of the border at the 2019 general election can enjoy a zombie resurgence in Scotland is open to question.

Disruption and dissent has consequences, as the Scotsman poll shows. In this week’s magazine, I make the point that the pro-Yes majority may be softer than it seems. The Edinburgh-based pollster Mark Diffley estimates that around 20 per cent of Scots are indy-curious but have yet to fully make up their minds. “The polling tends to be quite binary, asking people whether they are Yes or No,” he says. “If you ask the question in a different way, that 20 per cent tend to be a bit more on the fence. Some of them have definitely jumped ship from No to Yes, but not all. Others are waiting to see what impact Brexit will have and in the end may not follow through on their curiosity. It’s not the slam dunk it sometimes seems to be.”

This is the reality facing the independence movement. Its recent progress is down almost entirely to Sturgeon – her measured, empathetic leadership, especially when contrasted with that of Boris Johnson; her stewardship of the nation through the Covid crisis; her relative moderation (although some might say lack of radicalism and courage) when it comes to public policy; her largely successful efforts to keep the extremists at the margins.

Her style may not suit everyone, but it has taken Scotland closer to voting Yes than on any previous occasion. The vitriol now being poured on her leadership and on those around her may in part be deserved, and may make those doing so feel better about themselves – they certainly have every right to act as they wish. But its impact on the general electorate and its desire for independence is unlikely to be a positive one.

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

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's Scotland editor.

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