Kate Forbes, ostensibly the smartest and most sensible of them, this week told the first leadership hustings that “independence is coming and sooner than most people think”. Her competitors, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf, have delivered variations on the theme.
It’s understandable during such a contest that those participating will tell their selectorate what it wants to hear – Liz Truss showed how effective that approach can be. It is SNP members who will choose the next first minister, and they are members of that party not because they have a deep passion for education reform or for dualling the A9 but because they want Scotland to leave the UK. You’re not going to win their vote without tickling their bellies.
But there are warnings from recent history that the candidates ignore at their peril. Truss promised to be the truest of blues, and was, and fell over almost immediately. The enthusiasms of party members are rarely shared by non-members – political activists are often unusual, obsessive types. Show them the promised land and they will become impatient and querulous when you don’t immediately reach it.
[See also: The undoing of Nicola Sturgeon]
By repeatedly insisting that independence was imminent, Sturgeon was both obsessive-in-chief and bound to a movement that took her at her word. As a result, tactics came to drive strategy, but the tactics kept falling short.
The SNP has fought one referendum and lost. It has demanded another referendum and been refused by the UK government. It has tried to hold a referendum under its own steam and been blocked by the Supreme Court. It has threatened to treat the next general election and/or the next Holyrood election as a de facto referendum (an approach still being pursued by one of the candidates, Regan), but found the idea is unpopular with the public. It has howled and raged and cursed the kingdom. What, one might ask, has it not tried, beyond a unilateral declaration of independence?
I had hoped – foolishly, clearly – that the departure of the Salmond-Sturgeon generation (John Swinney, Sturgeon’s deputy and another keystone of the old guard, has announced his departure from government too) would see a new realism enter the soul of the independence movement. There was a serious conversation to be had. Many of their fellow Scots are mentally exhausted by the governing party’s relentless attempts to clear the constitutional bar, like a high jumper who won’t give up on a height that is at present simply beyond them. Our metaphorical high jumper would be well advised to stop, go away and train harder, and only return once there was a reasonable prospect of success. Much the same applies to the SNP.
It is hard to see how a new leader, with relatively low name recognition and a reputation that still needs to be earned, is going to inspire the unpersuaded to suddenly help them fly over that bar. Surveys show voters have finally begun to lose faith in the SNP’s capacity to govern well. The ordinary Scot’s priorities are the cost-of-living crisis and the enfeebled NHS, neither of which can be a quick fix. Eyes are being cast towards an incoming Labour government at Westminster and the possibility of a rejuvenated party north of the border. If the new first minister continues to put securing independence at the top of their list, they risk being seen merely as the last gasp of a dying regime. Whoever wins will have less authority and charisma than their two immediate predecessors. The nation will be able to contain its excitement. A new dawn will not have broken.
The candidates talk about hard work, but the only thing their party hasn’t tried yet is precisely that. Talk to leading Nats once the cameras are off and the notebooks are closed, and they admit a fairly fundamental rethink is required. The more honest will also accept that independence is not in fact just around the corner – the time-scale and, in a sense, the challenge, have changed.
They talk of using the muscle of Holyrood to build an exciting new Scotland – of illustrating through sustained, effective state action that the SNP is capable of delivering a growing and excitingly diverse economy, an education system that once again competes with the world’s best, and an NHS that is reformed to meet the demands of the modern world. This is the way to win over those voters who have so far, and despite everything, proved stubbornly resistant to the supposed attractions of leaving the UK.
The narrative would be: if we can do this with the limited powers we have, imagine what we could do if we had total control! But while these policy outcomes all sound attractive, whatever your constitutional position, they will not be easy to achieve, will involve controversy and the spending of political capital, and, crucially, will take time. Many years, in fact.
Does the SNP have the patience, the guts, the ambition or even perhaps the depth of talent to achieve all or any of this? Does it even have the time? The party has passed its electoral peak. While it is likely to remain the largest Scottish party after the next Westminster election, and to have the most MSPs after the 2026 devolved election, it will almost certainly lose seats in both – and possibly a substantial number. Scottish Labour is hopeful of taking back as many as 20 seats when Rishi Sunak names the day. That will then be its launch pad for 2026, with a message that Labour in government in London and Edinburgh can do more to improve the lot of Scots by working in concert, rather than the unavoidably oppositional nature of the current Westminster-Holyrood relationship. The end of the decade could bring the end of the SNP’s long run.
It’s possible, I suppose, that the new leader will surprise the nation with their brilliance and appeal, and that support for independence will grow. But when you hear Forbes say that she wants to hold a referendum within three months of the next general election, the heart can only sink. In the end, the SNP seems unable to be truly serious about achieving its raison d’etre, which might be the oddest thing about this whole odd era.