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22 February 2023

Why the fall of Nicola Sturgeon offers little reason for unionist triumphalism

The enduring strength of the SNP is not just a morbid symptom of British decline: it is a rebuke to the complacency and failures of Westminster politicians.

By Jason Cowley

What does Scottish independence mean? For some of its most ardent supporters it is a belief system with its own distinct theology and eschatology. The telos, the end to which all activity is directed, is for Scotland to be liberated from the moribund British state. In 2014, the independence campaign as led by Alex Salmond, then first minister, was not really a campaign for independence as desired by the fundamentalists. Salmond emphasised continuity and advocated a kind of unionist-nationalism. He favoured not a clean break but a monarchical, social, monetary, and military union with what would have become the rump-UK. Once opposed to Nato membership, Salmond had convinced the SNP to pull the defence alliance into a warm embrace. He loathed the presence of nuclear submarines on the Clyde – or so he claimed – but Salmond also recognised that an independent Scotland would need Nato to guarantee its security. It would also need England – especially English military and financial power as well as Britain’s independent central bank. Brexit thwarted the SNP’s pragmatic ambition for a unionist-nationalist “independence” settlement. With a putative independent Scotland seeking to join the EU while England remained outside the bloc, a hard border between the two countries would be inevitable.

So, again, what does Scottish independence really mean today, after Brexit? Is it an end in itself – or the means for Scotland’s reinvention as a Nordic-style social democracy, as many left nationalists argued during the 2014 referendum campaign? How would this outcome differ from Keir Starmer’s social democratic incrementalism, which is gaining some popularity in Scotland?

Salmond has said he hopes that Sturgeon’s resignation as first minister will enable the independence movement “to reunify”. There is little chance of that while the movement, now fractured across several parties – the SNP, the Greens, Salmond’s Alba – remains divided over both the meaning of independence and how to achieve it when no legal referendum can be held without the agreement of London. Sturgeon’s claim that the next general election would serve as a de facto independence referendum amounted to little more than a declaration of faith.

In the days preceding her resignation, this formidable rhetorician had lost confidence. There was now only doubt in her expressions of confidence. The cracks in her armour were widening. Once-loyal supporters were muttering about her mistakes and false moves. In front of her media interrogators, the First Minister’s cold, hard stare betrayed her growing realisation that she was losing her touch and the support of the Scottish people. Alex Salmond, her former mentor turned tormentor, was mocking her. And London was fighting back, thwarting her plans for Indyref2, and blocking the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill. 

But this is no time for unionist triumphalism. Nearly half of the Scottish electorate supports secession from the United Kingdom. Conservative Britain in 2023 is demoralised and directionless. The government is exhausted and out of ideas. The libertarian right is in retreat after the disastrous Truss-Kwarteng interregnum. Rishi Sunak, heralded as a Silicon Valley New Man, is floundering.

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Beyond the Westminster jamboree, essential public services such as the railways and the Royal Mail are broken. Roads are potholed and high streets are neglected or semi-derelict. Prices are rising ruinously. Strike-ravaged Britain is now a relatively poor country with a lot of rich people living in it. A sad music is playing in the English shires and a post-imperial twilight has fallen over these islands. Why wouldn’t Scots wish to turn away from the decay and misrule and seek to build a new country? How much longer can the rickety multinational British state hold together without fundamental reform? My own preference is not for the end of the Union but for the creation of a bold, new constitutional settlement.

But what does the SNP want? More than a political party, it is a movement and a cause. In power it has become a party-state, which believes its interests are coterminous with those of the Scottish people. They are not but that’s what it believes. Its enduring strength is not just a morbid symptom of British decline: it is a rebuke to the complacency and failures of several generations of Westminster politicians who have little feeling for the social atmosphere of the country and thus keep making the same mistakes.   

[See also: Three cheers for Nicola Sturgeon for knowing when to walk away]

I accompanied my colleague Michael Prodger to the new Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the first time so many of the Dutch master’s paintings – 28 of the 37 in the world – have been gathered in one place. Michael reminded me that, as we stood before the View of Delft, this was the painting said to have caused Marcel Proust to faint when he saw it. Which work would make you faint, we were asked. For Michael, I suggested, it would be the discovery of a previously unknown John Aldridge north Essex landscape. He smiled cryptically. I didn’t faint but can recall my astonishment when I first saw Masaccio’s The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the early Renaissance fresco on the walls of the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Fully restored in the 1980s, the fresco is a study in agony. As Eve hides her nakedness, Adam covers his face with his hands, the first man, shamed, humiliated, and psychologically destroyed. His pain resonates through the centuries and feels radically modern – humanity at its most abject and exposed.

Read more:

The undoing of Nicola Sturgeon

Why the battle for the Union is far from over

Kate Forbes emerges as early favourite for SNP leadership

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon