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2 September 2021

The SNP-Green deal does nothing to change Nicola Sturgeon’s independence dilemma

The Scottish First Minister’s willingness to embark on a legal battle with Westminster is a high-risk strategy.

By Chris Deerin

Everyone wants to know what happens next. Even the smartest among us are struggling to understand where Scottish politics is headed over the next few years.

To this end, an SNP-supporting friend and I were recently asked to speak to the leaders of Scotland’s universities to shed some light on the constitutional direction of travel.

This was no easy task, clarity of analysis not being currently accessible. I fear we rather dumped a barrel-load of ifs, buts and maybes on our eminent and no doubt increasingly bemused audience.

There is a soupy haar obscuring the near-future of Scottish politics, and it is one that the formation of an SNP-Green coalition does nothing to lift. The confidence with which the First Minister and her administration talk of holding a second independence referendum in the next few years is confounded by the lack of any obvious path, and by a Westminster government that shows no indication it will grant one. I simply don’t know how this will play out – and nor do you. Nor does Nicola Sturgeon.

There were two questions from our academic interrogators that stood out. One was about whether Boris Johnson or a successor might somehow be persuaded to authorise a referendum; the other was what the SNP would do without such a licence.

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The first has a more straightforward answer. There are surely no circumstances in which Johnson will give the green light. A UK government source wouldn’t even entertain the possibility this week: “Too risky. No chance. And no need.” They pointed out that even were the Nationalists to win more Scottish seats at the next general election – with spring 2023 the bookies’ favourite date – this would mark a difference only of degree. In 2019, the SNP won 48 of the 59 seats available. Perhaps a clean sweep would establish unstoppable momentum, but that is a bar that even the SNP’s brilliant election-winning machine is likely to find too high.

The formation of the Nat-Green alliance does nothing to advance the independence cause, despite Sturgeon’s self-serving argument to the contrary. The Greens are as pantingly pro-independence as the most fervent SNP minister, and would have voted for a referendum from the backbenches anyway. They were always priced in. Nothing has changed.

It is not even a proper coalition, with the Greens’ co-leaders given entertainingly minor non-cabinet jobs – Patrick Harvie is minister for zero-carbon buildings, active travel and tenants’ rights, while Lorna Slater is minister for green skills, circular economy and biodiversity. The junior party is still allowed to vote against the government on a whole host of important issues – they are already locked in a row with Sturgeon about vaccine passports.

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I have found little enthusiasm for the arrangement among my SNP sources. Where support has been expressed on social media it has largely been a case of painting on a smile. There is particular concern about the message the deal sends to Scotland’s business community, much of which already viewed the administration as hostile and neglectful. 

The SNP’s disillusioned former deputy leader Jim Sillars might have gone further than most in a letter to the Times this week, but you hear echoes of his sentiments around the place: “We in Scotland are now lumbered with a government that is simultaneously for and against economic growth, with a ‘circular economy’ minister likely to drive business round the bend,” he wrote. “Leaving aside its constant reference to a referendum, Nicola Sturgeon’s government is most noted for its incompetence: from the ferries fiasco, the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind’ claim despite there not being a wind turbine building industry in Scotland, new hospitals hardly fit for purpose, rising poverty and record drug deaths to exam chaos. The SNP is brilliant at spin but lacks any solid achievement.”

Few doubt the Green partnership is anything more than an attempt to advance the independence cause, and it is therefore hard to avoid cynicism at what is a fairly shabby use of public money and state power. Yet even on its own terms, it fails to answer the question “what now?”

Despite pressure from the more excitable members of the Yes movement, Sturgeon has repeatedly ruled out the possibility of any kind of “wildcat” referendum – that is, one held outside the agreed UK legalities. And she is right to do so. Such a step would betray decades of Nationalist strategy, which to the party’s credit has involved peacefully and democratically working towards self-determination. Plus, any such gimcrack vote would be boycotted by the Unionist parties and many of their voters. The result would be invalid, and do more damage than good to the independence cause.

What does this leave? In short, the courts. The SNP is showing a growing willingness to use lawfare in its attempts to build grievance against the British state. We currently await a ruling from the Supreme Court on a dispute between the Holyrood and Westminster governments about the former’s right to pass two bills in their current form, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill and the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. UK law officers argue that certain provisions in the bills are outside the legislative competence of the Scottish parliament. It seems likely that the court will find in Westminster’s favour, and that the SNP will then argue that Scotland’s ability to make its own decisions is being unfairly restricted by membership of the British state.

We are, surely, heading for a similar legal debate about the Scottish government’s right to hold an independence referendum either with or without Westminster’s permission. If legal weight is found to lie with the UK government – which seems the probable outcome – the SNP will again claim the democratic will of Scots is being proscribed by London.

The party will then rely on the Scottish electorate taking its side – that even those who favour the Union might be sympathetic to its argument. Perhaps some will. Others might only grow more jaded by these relentless attempts to force through a second vote within a decade of the first, or be angered by the amount of time and money being spent on independence when there are so very many social issues Holyrood could be tackling instead.

It all feels like a massive gamble by the First Minister, who has perhaps decided that her own time at the helm is growing short and that she therefore has little to lose. For better or worse, this high-risk strategy might at least blow some of the fog away.