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18 November 2022

The SNP has missed its golden opportunity to win independence

The high watermark of Scottish nationalism has passed – and Nicola Sturgeon knows it.

By Chris Deerin

If the reputation of Westminster could sink any lower among Scots, it’s hard to imagine how. In the six-and-a-half years since the vote for Brexit, the UK parliament has rarely risen above the status of an embarrassing shambles.

A series of clammy chancers has claimed the keys to No 10 – prime ministers who during their consistently brief survival in office have suckled the most unpalatable of their party’s right-wingers, brazenly shattered long-standing conventions and securities, and wilfully trashed the UK’s reputation for reliability and trustworthiness. 

We lived through a pandemic in which the disgraceful Boris Johnson and his colleagues were at least as concerned with which of them would come out on top as they were with the protection of the public. There was no suspension of politics-as-usual or, as the police would go on to find, much observance of the rules they imposed on the rest of us.

The fundamental miscalculation that is leaving the EU has helped ensure we are the only major economy that has failed to return to its pre-pandemic size, while investment and influence continue to drift away as Brexit’s slow puncture takes effect. The chronic short-termism of Westminster – its inability to take long-term decisions and stick to them – has been brutally exposed by the economic and energy crisis. As ever, the poor suffer most, a sacrifice most pro-Brexit MPs and campaigners were bravely willing to make.

We have required a tragic – though thankfully morally straightforward – war in Ukraine to provide a fig leaf of dignity. Otherwise we are diminished on the international stage, humbled at home, and somehow still ruled by a caste that has been proved wrong, wrong and wrong again.

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There’s not much to like there, as Nicola Sturgeon makes clear on a daily basis. Yet for all this – and for all Sturgeon’s relentless complaining, assertions of moral superiority, personal showboating, and the millions in taxpayers’ money spent on bolstering the case for independence, Scotland somehow seems no closer to wanting to leave the UK. 

Alarmingly for the First Minister, the Tories appear to have finally chanced on a PM of some integrity and ability, while Labour looks likely to return to office at the next general election – and if the US is genuinely turning its back on Donald Trump, that too suggests the revolutionary tumult of recent years may be passing. 

The austerity in the Autumn Statement is decried by the SNP, but sensible voters will see its necessity in order to get things back on track – if you think Jeremy Hunt has been tough, just imagine the brutality of the early budgets in an independent Scotland. Nor do sensible voters think Keir Starmer should go into the next election promising immediately to take Britain back into the EU. The correct response to that unfeasible demand is: grow up.

[See also: Labour needs a radical alternative to Jeremy Hunt’s wages of misery]

As one independence-supporting businessman put it to me this week, “even I’m not crazy enough to want to leave the UK when we’re in this state. We’d be crushed.” No one serious has been impressed by the expensive series of papers produced this year by Scottish civil servants that supposedly make an unprecedentedly detailed case for independence. Blanks remain unfilled and old questions unanswered, while new questions are raised and heads are scratched at the lack of intellectual rigour involved. 

If it is true that the UK’s recent performance could barely be worse, it is also true that every crisis contains an opportunity. It is one Sturgeon has spectacularly failed to take. She has under her belt eight years of (at best) mediocre, unimaginative governance, of shirking important policy challenges, of running public services and local government into the ground, of centralisation with no real purpose beyond gathering power and keeping control of the narrative, of failing ever to accept responsibility for decline, and ultimately of sacrificing national prosperity and well-being to the greater glory of securing independence. This amounts to a wholly unconvincing case for separation – there’s no point pointing out how bad the other lot are if you’re crap too. This is a sentiment I hear expressed more and more, and not only from the usual sources.

Sturgeon’s party should perhaps be examining the scale and consequences of that failure as it considers its future. Scotland cannot – or at least should not – go on like this ad infinitum. More of the same is not going to cut it, or persuade the unpersuaded. 

The high watermark of Sturgeon nationalism has passed, and I suspect she knows it. She has taken too long and achieved too little. The thinkers among the younger generation of SNP politicians accept that a fresh approach is needed – though such is Sturgeon’s iron grip on the party and reputation for retribution that none of them will say so publicly yet. But they are biding their time, aware that the torch must soon pass and that this will be the moment for a change in tone, volume and style of governance.  

In the meantime the UK needs to restore some order. In a paper for the Institute for Government this week, the former Cabinet Office mandarin Philip Rycroft makes some interesting suggestions as to how a degree of constitutional dignity could be restored to Westminster. These include requiring a two thirds majority in the House of Commons for repeal or amendment of constitutional law, and the creation of a reformed second chamber with the role of guardian of the constitution and powers to refer the government to the Supreme Court. 

It would also seem necessary for some clarity as to the circumstances in which Scotland should be entitled to hold another referendum, rather than the existing political whim. In such a vote should 50+1 be enough of a pro-independence majority to enable separation, or would some kind of super-majority – the demonstration of comprehensive national support for such irreversible change – be wiser? If only something similar had been in place during the Brexit vote, the UK, Westminster and Scotland might be in considerably better shape today.

[See also: Jeremy Hunt’s political balancing act won’t satisfy an angry public]

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