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27 April 2022updated 28 Sep 2022 12:15pm

Putin’s war could be the undoing of Nicola Sturgeon

As Nato fortifies to counter the Russian threat, the case against Trident – and for Scottish independence – is looking increasingly frail.

By Andrew Marr

The Ukraine war continues to change everything. That includes the future of the English-Scottish union, a matter of rather more heft and pith than the latest turn of the staircase in the endless tumble-bump-thump of Mr Boris Johnson.

The SNP is committed to IndyRef2 by the first half of this Scottish parliament; that is, next year. Nicola Sturgeon, her senior colleagues and Scottish civil servants have begun planning for it, even though London still refuses to discuss the matter. This, we know.

But increasingly the timing looks bad for the anti-Trident, left-of-centre Scottish nationalists. The war and Putin’s nuclear threats have made Nato more popular right across Europe – and British nuclear weapons more relevant to much middle-ground opinion of the kind the SNP needs to convert to nationalism. A time of sudden Western unity, felt in Scotland as much as anywhere else, is not, you might think, an ideal time to insist on the break-up of the United Kingdom.

[See also: London’s response to Vladimir Putin is pathetically inadequate]

Formally, the SNP remains absolutely committed to its prior timetable. But listening to some of the weasel words and unhappy expressions of SNP politicians questioned on this, I’m beginning to wonder.

So are the Scottish people. In a poll published by YouGov in early April, 36 per cent thought the referendum should happen in 2023. On independence, 44 per cent of people said they would vote no, 39 per cent said they would vote yes and 13 per cent did not know. The SNP has some persuading to do across that undecided middle ground.

What would happen if Sturgeon announced a referendum next year remains unclear. The Conservatives have said they would simply not allow it – and under the 1998 Scotland Act, the Union is marked out as one of the reserved matters for Westminster. But does that include the holding of an independence referendum? This looks likely to end up with the Supreme Court.

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Michael Gove has told me that the British government would not take the Scottish government to court, but the London view is still that any referendum authorised by Edinburgh alone would be illegal and non-binding. Sturgeon is unlikely to accept a non-binding or informal referendum because she needs international recognition and a firm legal basis for separation. Going down that route leads to the kind of full-scale confrontation that Catalonia experienced with Madrid in 2019, leading to the prosecution and jailing of politicians.

Sturgeon has told me it would be “absurd and outrageous” for this to end up in the courts. In truth, however, would it not now quite suit the SNP to be prevented by un-elected judges from allowing Scotland to vote on national self-determination?

It would be a rhetorical win against bully-boy London for nationalism, at a time when winning the referendum itself would be hard. That would be more attractive for Sturgeon than simply announcing the referendum was off, which would outrage impatient, soothed-too-long SNP members. The party might even start to split, losing to the Scottish Greens and Alex Salmond’s Alba.

In the end, the SNP leader needs a deal. It is not impossible that Johnson, a master of deflection fighting for his survival, could gamble that the odds were with unionism and allow a referendum. But right now those odds depend, more than ever before, on the defence issue.

As the moment of decision for Sturgeon comes very close and the war in Ukraine continues, there is absolutely no chance of the SNP changing its policy on Trident, or accepting that the nuclear submarines could stay in a lease-back arrangement with the rest of the UK. Politicians down south who hope that some deal could be figured out simply don’t understand the SNP or its history. Nicola Sturgeon joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament even before she joined the SNP. Hostility to Trident is woven into the modern history of the party. Go online to check out its defence policy and the first words you meet are: “The SNP has never and will never support the retention or renewal of Trident. We believe that nuclear weapons are immoral, ineffective and expensive.”

Hostility to nuclear weapons is a genuine non-negotiable for the SNP – not just its current leadership, but its MSPs and ordinary party members. Just ahead of the 2014 referendum Nicola Sturgeon said: “As the world’s newest country, one of the first things an independent Scotland will have the chance to do is rid itself of weapons of mass destruction. I cannot think of any more powerful statement we can make to the world about what kind of country we will be, and what our place in the world will be.”

However much the policy might worry voters still undecided on independence, it’s not going to change. In fact, if any part of the SNP’s defence posture is up for grabs, the party might be more likely to go in the opposite direction and reverse its support for Nato. Historically, the SNP has had a pacificist wing. In 1938 it announced that it would “resist all propagandistic efforts to march our people to an imperialist war” and in the early years of the Second World War it was split between those who resisted conscription into London’s army and those who did not.

Steered by its defence spokesman, Stewart McDonald, the SNP leadership today is unequivocally in favour of Nato. McDonald is looking for ways in which Scotland could help the alliance without any involvement in nuclear weapons. Different smaller nations offer different things, goes the argument: Estonia specialises in cyber warfare, Denmark in special forces. Scotland, therefore, could offer military medicine or commandos.

But remember that until 2012 the SNP was equally firmly against Nato – and it’s not hard to understand why. If you believe any investment in nuclear weapons is evil and immoral, why would you want to be part of a defence treaty based on them?

[See also: How will Nicola Sturgeon use her final years in office?]

The SNP is now in coalition with the Scottish Greens, who are anti-Nato; the SNP’s own position changed only when, under Alex Salmond’s leadership and after talks with northern European Nato members, the party narrowly backed the defence alliance – with the important caveat that an independent Scotland would never host anyone else’s nuclear weapons. Even so, three MSPs resigned over the issue. Many in the party believe that a debate on Nato membership would be reopened in the early years of an independent Scotland.

It isn’t a big surprise that, at a time when a nuclear-armed Russia has launched a territorial war of conquest in Europe and is openly threatening the West with its latest generation of nuclear weapons, these are not the first issues the SNP wants to discuss. Indeed, Trident could be the issue that makes winning an independence referendum next year impossible.

Privately, many Scots may think that by withdrawing from the nuclear club they make Scotland – as opposed to England – less vulnerable to any Russian attack. But either way the defence issue is going to bleed into every other aspect of independence politics. And the politics is circular. If Johnson and co are looking for a reason to refuse the SNP its referendum, then preventing the removal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent when Putin is using nuclear threats would be persuasive. It gives unionists a high-ground argument they haven’t had.

The SNP has not been having a happy time recently, despite the easy hits to be enjoyed over disgraceful behaviour at Westminster. A ferocious row over the long delays and wasted money in providing new ferries for the Scottish islands has been little reported in England but has damaged SNP ministers, including Sturgeon, quite severely.

Quietly, on independence, crucial planning goes on. The party is close to an agreement on the new Scottish currency. Sensibly, but to the disappointment of romantics, it will be called the pound, with a distinguishing “S” prefix. Legislation for a new financial authority, which will eventually morph into a Scottish central bank, will be one of the most reliable indicators that the Scottish government still intends a referendum vote next year.

But defence threatens to change all calculations. Careful analysis by one of Scottish nationalism’s most eminent anti-nuclear thinkers, the late John Ainslie, suggests there are no practical alternatives to the nuclear submarine base 40 miles from Glasgow on the Clyde at Faslane and Coulport.

The Ministry of Defence has considered, and rejected, sites in south Wales – too near oil and gas installations – and on the southern English coast – too close to busy sea lanes and heavily populated areas. Basing the submarines and warheads on US or French territory would, for the remainder of the UK, be a national humiliation.

A Scottish independence vote next year would therefore also be a vote immediately to strip the UK of its nuclear deterrent. Many south of the border would be delighted. But this would be provocative to the British state. It would be a unilateral act deeply resented by millions of voters outside Scotland. And those are the same voters, of course, on whose goodwill an independent Scotland would rely in trying to negotiate financial and trade-and-border separation deals. The SNP confidently says these talks would be friendly. That feels optimistic. With Ukraine burning, it might feel more like giving the British team an almighty kick in the balls, before sitting down and beginning, “Now friends, let us explain exactly what we want from you.”

In public, Sturgeon conveys a calm, imperturbable self-confidence. But she is on the rack. Putin didn’t start a war to damage the SNP, but that’s what he’s doing. Either she somehow gets to fight a referendum against an international backdrop that could not be less promising, or she doesn’t, and her party loses patience with her. She is one of the last generation of Scottish Nationalists who grew up when the party was marginal:  her disappearance from the stage would be a big moment for Scotland – and the UK.

The SNP would not suddenly vanish or lose its appeal. But it would lose its vivifying melodrama, its Braveheart chops. It would risk subsiding into a normal, social democratic managerial machine in decline, just like the Parti Québécois after it lost its independence referendums. From Canada to Spain, there are harsh lessons about what happens to national movements when they lose momentum. Boris Johnson isn’t the only party leader with some serious thinking to do this spring.

[See also: It would be madness for Nato to try and topple Putin]

This piece is the cover story of the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman, subscribe here.

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma