The timing of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation may now lie in the hands of one Conservative. When Rishi Sunak names the date of the next general election he will begin the countdown to what may be the endgame for Scotland’s longest-serving first minister.
After the Supreme Court ruled on 23 November that the Scottish Parliament lacks the autonomy to hold an independence referendum without the UK government’s consent, Sturgeon confirmed that the SNP would contest the next general election as a de facto referendum instead. If pro-independence parties gain more than 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland (the Scottish Greens support independence and have a power-sharing agreement with the SNP at Holyrood), Sturgeon will take this as a mandate to begin separation negotiations with Westminster. If the SNP fail to reach that threshold, she will surely follow Alex Salmond’s precedent after his defeat in the 2014 referendum, and head for the exit.
It is the biggest gamble of Sturgeon’s long career. The SNP’s best performance in a general election was in 2015, when it received just under 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland. It was a post-referendum “buyer’s remorse” election, where the party gained 50 extra seats and in effect wiped out Scottish Labour. At the 2017 election, the SNP secured 37 per cent of the vote (the Tories enjoyed a revival under the leadership of Ruth Davidson in Scotland), and in 2019 it took 45 per cent. It’s hard, however, to be confident that the nationalists will soar above the 50 per cent mark at this stage in the political cycle, and so long into their governance at Holyrood.
Is it desperation or calculation that has brought Sturgeon to this point? Throughout her years in power, she has sought to keep the independence movement bubbling – repeatedly suggesting that a second referendum was inevitable. So far, this has only brought disappointment to the faithful.
Now, time grows short. After eight years in office, could it be that the First Minister is preparing the ground for her departure? She is looking to rush through legislation that she believes can define her legacy – specifically, on gender recognition reform (which has divided her party) and the creation of a National Care Service. Perhaps it’s her ego that’s driving her to have one last shot at delivering the greatest prize of all.
For left-of-centre voters from south of the border, the next general election will be about removing the Tories from power. In recent Westminster and Holyrood elections, most Scots have voted for parties that represent their constitutional preference. Sturgeon is determined that this continues to be the case – which is why she insisted at a press conference following the Supreme Court ruling that the outcome was a frustration of Scottish democracy and the right of self-determination. For Sturgeon, IndyRef2 is now as much about democracy as it is about independence.
Scottish Labour would, of course, prefer Scots to view the next election as a Labour versus Tory contest, which would put the squeeze on the SNP. “In the west of Scotland, the central belt and Fife we are highly competitive against the SNP in about 20 seats,” one strategist from the Scottish Labour Party told me. He added that the increased likelihood of a Labour government in Westminster means that high-quality Labour candidates have begun looking for Scottish seats again, and that influential business figures are seeking out the Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar. “It would have to be an extremely good night for us to win 20 seats, but we are well in with a shout of 12 or 13,” the strategist said.
This would be a shift in Scottish politics, returning some former strongholds to Labour, and would mark the beginning of the end for nationalist hegemony. Labour believes Sturgeon has misjudged that the general election can be fought on the constitutional question alone. “People are facing genuine hardship, and we’re not just talking about the poor,” one Labour frontbencher told me. “People on £40k-£50k are feeling it too. This is more important to them than an independence referendum. The SNP’s poor domestic record, such as the dreadful state of NHS Scotland, is more of an issue. The SNP vote is definitely softer than it’s been.”
Support for independence peaked during the pandemic, but the latest polls show that 45-51 per cent would vote Yes and 49-51 per cent would vote No. “Holding a referendum now would be flipping a coin,” said the pollster Mark Diffley, a former director of Ipsos Mori.
The key battle will be for those soft SNP supporters who say they would vote for independence but do not want a referendum right now, Diffley said. Sarwar has made it clear that Scottish Labour hopes to “borrow” these voters to help oust the Tories from Westminster. In a recent interview, Sarwar said: “You might disagree about our final destination, but we can agree about getting rid of this government, so let us go on that journey together.”
Sturgeon will be similarly eager to keep the soft SNP voters in the nationalist camp. She will likely spend the period before the general election trying to maximise any sense of grievance over Westminster’s refusal to allow a second referendum.
The hard truth of the independence question is that someone must win and someone must lose. Nicola Sturgeon has grown used to winning, but the next election could be her final defeat.
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince