What is the democratic route that the SNP should take to deliver Scottish independence? According to Nicola Sturgeon, the party should treat either the next Holyrood or general election – or perhaps both – as a de facto referendum. Were the SNP to gain more than 50 per cent of the vote, she says, it would begin separation negotiations with the UK government.
Not everyone in her party agrees with this strategy. In fact, even her own loyalists are going public with their doubts. In “A Scotland That Can Vote Yes”, a report published today, the SNP MP Stewart McDonald writes bluntly that “a de facto referendum, regardless of whether it takes place in a Westminster or Holyrood election, will not secure Scotland’s independence”. He describes the proposal as “a deficient mechanism” that “creates the potential for all sorts of problems for the cause… [it] could set our movement back significantly. We… expose ourselves to the potential for further division, rancour and setbacks that could prove existential for the party and cause in years to come.”
McDonald is a Sturgeon ally, and among the brightest and most thoughtful of the SNP’s next generation. His work as the party’s defence spokesman – a role he recently quit after falling out with the party’s new Westminster leader Stephen Flynn – was detailed and credible in a policy area that has long been tricky for the SNP. He was also the driving force behind its immediate and sustained support for Ukraine following the Russian invasion.
He will not have issued this paper lightly. It is timed to influence the SNP’s “special democracy conference” in March, which will decide its future strategy on independence. It is interesting too that the report’s foreword is by Alex Neil, a former MSP and health secretary who has been an internal critic of Sturgeon. McDonald and Neil would previously have made unlikely bedfellows, which tells us something about the shifting currents in the nationalist movement.
In his foreword, Neil argues that “Stewart is correct when he points out that a ‘de-facto referendum’ is likely to be an own goal”. While polls since 2014 have seen backing for independence consistently around the 45 per cent mark, he says, “clearly that level of support won’t deliver independence. The First Minister herself is on record as saying we need to aspire to getting support for independence up to around the 60 per cent mark… If we can’t do that persuasion job on a big enough scale, then no matter what route map to independence we employ, we will fail.”
This publication represents an important moment in the current independence debate: the party’s gradualist wing is restating its terms and demanding a return to the kind of strategic patience that took the SNP to its current giddy electoral heights. Neil was once viewed as a fundamentalist, the kind who favoured a dash to freedom, but in time he has become more nuanced and cautious. Sturgeon seems to have made the reverse journey – once seen as an arch-gradualist, she now appears ever-more determined to force Scotland over the line, and by almost any means, before she leaves office.
McDonald echoes warnings many of us have made about the de facto plan. “That we are discussing a de facto referendum demonstrates we are seeking to solve the wrong problem, albeit one that is understandable: our own impatience… Instead, we must find the most productive way of channelling this strength of feeling towards the development of a strategy which takes us materially closer to an independent Scotland, while remaining steadfast in our commitment to the principles of democracy and the rule of law… We cannot rush this.
“To sprint for independence before the rest of the country is ready would be to risk seeing it crumble before us.”
The MP warns that any attempt to use an election-based, de facto referendum as a pretext for negotiating independence would simply be ignored by a Westminster government. The electorate is also unlikely to be impressed by such a singular, obsessive focus. “Walking into the polling booth at the next election, voters will be thinking of their wallets, their health, and their security.” Nor, crucially, would it find favour with international opinion: “The goodwill [sic] that exists for Scotland, particularly following the 2016 EU referendum, would begin to evaporate if we demur from an orderly, lawful, and democratic route to independence – the only route that the international community will recognise.”
The paper says the SNP should create and resource a cross-country campaign by the summer. It would seek to drive support for independence above 50 per cent and sustain it at that higher level. The party should decouple the referendum from the electoral cycle and instead make it the centrepiece of its next manifesto, thus asking voters for an overwhelming show of support for the step.
McDonald and Neil believe that if a majority of SNP MPs was returned to Westminster on such a manifesto pledge, any prime minister would have to accept the right to hold one. This is arguable, and it’s far from clear that most Scots actually want another referendum any time soon, but it does highlight the current absence within the UK of any defined democratic route that would allow a second vote on independence.
The fact that this pamphlet had to be written in the first place shows how divided the SNP has become in recent months. What has been for too long a monolithic party has again become a place of debate and contested opinion. This is not unhealthy – but it would be curious indeed were Nicola Sturgeon to suddenly find herself on the losing side.