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24 March 2022

The SNP has missed its chance for Scottish independence

The cost-of-living crisis and the war in Ukraine could banish hopes of independence for years – or even a generation.

By Chris Deerin

One of the more interesting phenomena in the Scottish media microculture has been the emergence of a cadre of pro-independence, anti-SNP writers. A significant number of columnists once closely aligned with the party have lost patience with what they see as the slow pace towards a second referendum, or with the nature of the devolved government, and sometimes with the extremes and intolerances of the Yes movement. Outside of the Daily Mail, they have quickly become the angriest and most dedicated critics of Nicola Sturgeon’s administration.

On one level this is a welcome sign of maturity – for too long, independence-supporting journalists formed a sort of Nat Pack, acting as little more than cheerleaders for the SNP. As the party’s time in government has stretched on into infinity, splits between the mothership and its attack drones and outliers have emerged in stark differences of opinion, tone and temperament. As SNP activists and elected politicians have shown greater willingness to critique the leadership, so have once-sympathetic hacks.

This may be inevitable, and it is certainly healthy for the body politic overall, but that doesn’t mean it helps the core cause. The impressive unity of 2014 has given way to a fractured, often self-excoriating climate, which only serves to expose unresolved disagreements on central matters such as currency, debt, public sector reform, gender and the timing of a second referendum.

I was struck by a recent column from Joyce McMillan, a theatre critic who has been a long-term vocal supporter of a separate Scotland. It’s not McMillan’s style to be hesitant about independence, but this only makes her shift in mood all the more telling.

A poll by Savanta ComRes published on 18 March found that 59 per cent of Scots believed discussions about the timing of a second referendum should be put on hold due to the Russian war on Ukraine, including 43 per cent of SNP voters. Fifty-two per cent felt that the cost-of-living crisis also justifies a halt. Overall, 49 per cent said they would vote No were another independence referendum to be held now, up three points since the last Sevanta ComRes poll in January. Support for Yes had dropped by two points to 44 per cent. Independence is slipping down the list of voter priorities.

McMillan admitted that “it often seems almost impossible to raise the question of further disruptive change, amid the current maelstrom of global crises”. The war had bolstered Boris Johnson’s reputation following the “partygate” scandal, and the ongoing Covid pandemic had reduced public appetite for debating independence. “In moments of relative confidence, peace and prosperity, the cautious middle ground of Scottish voters might be tempted to give the huge opportunities of independence a whirl; but in times of crisis… they generally prefer to stick to what they know,” she wrote.

It all led her to the conclusion that it could be another half-decade before the pro-indy forces might successfully align again, and that this was likely to be after Sturgeon has departed Bute House.

Sturgeon, curiously, continues to insist that a referendum will be held by the end of 2023, even though the most fervent nationalist must accept by now that this is next to impossible under current timescales and conditions. The moment is slipping away, not just from Sturgeon, but also perhaps for a generation – certainly for more than five years.

What the SNP fear most is the election of a Labour government at Westminster. UK polls show this is becoming an increasingly thinkable prospect, from overall voting intentions to confidence in Keir Starmer’s grasp of the challenges facing the economy, the cost-of-living crisis, and his general decency and dignity when compared to Downing Street’s current occupant. In office, the Tories have been the SNP’s most capable recruiting sergeant, but a popular Labour prime minister with a left-of-centre policy agenda would not just change the terms of debate, it might enable a comeback for the party in Scotland, which is already showing some twitches of life. The “evil Tories” line would certainly be lost as an easy, reliable nationalist weapon.

It must also be true that the role being played by the UK in the Ukraine war, both diplomatically and militarily, will appeal to some undecided voters, now being reminded in real time of how Britain can have an impact on the biggest global, moral challenges. It’s true that an independent Scotland would seek to rejoin the EU, but as a small, peripheral nation in that grouping – a grouping whose recent unity over Ukraine is already starting to show cracks – its role would be minimal and its choices railroaded by the much larger continental nations.

And these are disruptive and disrupted times. Lord knows what the British economy will look like in a few years if the current conditions pertain, but it is not wrong to say that the UK Treasury has deep pockets and is in a position to absorb the kinds of shocks that seem to be hitting us almost weekly. Launching an independent Scotland into these hurricane-tossed waters is unlikely to appeal to the undecided or, as McMillan puts it, “the cautious middle ground”. These problems are not going away anytime soon.

The same cannot be said for Sturgeon. The consequences of her departure, presumably before the next devolved election in 2026, are unknown. She is a colossus in Scottish politics, and it is hard to imagine the scene without her. It is even harder to predict the future of the SNP, or how voters will view the post-Sturgeon party. Presuming her replacement is someone less experienced and newer to the electorate, they will be taking over leadership of a tired party that will have been in power for two decades and that has a track record of failure as well as success. They will have to earn their place and their power, and change is never a simple, linear process – its effects will ripple out in unforeseeable ways.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the SNP have, for now, had and missed their chance to take Scotland out of the Union. Our turbulent, risk-filled world, which tosses us around like so many socks in a tumble dryer, hardly lends itself to visions of harmony and promises of a bold, bright new era. Just ask the Nat Pack.

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