WHAT a time it is for Scottish Nationalists. Last year’s independence referendum may have been lost – and by a fair old margin at that – but from defeat has come strength.
Poll after poll shows the SNP maintaining an extraordinary lead over its rivals. In just two months, we can expect the general election to deliver a platoon of nationalist MPs, and the old joke about Labour being able to put a monkey up for election in Scotland and succeed will be dead. All the monkeys, and the few good ones, too, are fighting for survival.
So, who could blame the SNP’s 100,000 members for believing that last September’s defeat was simply the end of round one in a constitutional battle that rages on?
A poll commissioned by the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft suggests that the SNP is on course to win 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster constituencies. Among the seats predicted to fall are those now held by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Chancellor Alistair Darling. Even Scottish Labour’s leader, Jim Murphy, faces a serious fight for political survival.
Last year, as the Yes campaign headed for defeat, then First Minister Alex Salmond – and those who followed him – were hugely enthusiastic about the momentum behind them. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t any momentum; as long as Salmond said there was, then his supporters believed it to be so.
But while the Yes campaign – a coalition of the SNP, the Scottish Greens, and sundry Trots and sods – did not have the momentum of which it so frequently boasted, the Scottish Nationalists now do.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is, without a shadow of a doubt, leading the SNP to the most astonishing Westminster success. In fact, she is leading it to what may be the most decisive result for any party in United Kingdom political history.
This being the case, it would be extraordinary, you might think, if Sturgeon didn’t seize the moment, announce it was time for one more heave, and promise a second independence referendum as soon as is possible?
With the next Holyrood election coming just a year after May’s poll, she doesn’t have long to make up her mind. Many who joined her party after the referendum – and that’s three- quarters of the membership – will expect to be given that second chance.
By the time of the political parties’ autumn conferences this September, Sturgeon will have to give those members – and the rest of us – some indication of whether the promise of another referendum is to be included in the SNP’s manifesto for 2016’s Scottish parliamentary election.
Those assuming that she will enthusiastically green-light that proposal may wish to pause for thought.
Lord Ashcroft’s poll – as with many that have come before it – certainly suggests that the majority of Scots who voted Yes last September plan to support the SNP in May, but most of 45 per cent does not a majority in favour of independence make.
Of course, both Labour and Tories will take one hell of a beating in May, but that will not, if polls are to be believed, represent a collapse of the No vote.
Let’s assume (and I don’t think this is especially reckless, given the current political climate in Scotland) that those who will stick by Labour in May remain in favour of the United Kingdom. Add those voters to those who will back the Tories and they still – for the time being, at the very least – outnumber the SNP’s.
Sturgeon, then, faces a very difficult decision in the very near future.
She could stand up at her party’s autumn conference and promise that the SNP will fight next year’s Holyrood election on the promise of a referendum re-run. The hall would erupt in a joyous chorus before the delegates spilled out onto the streets, certain that the UK was on its last legs, and that Sturgeon would deliver that which Salmond had failed to.
But she did not get to become the First Minister by being reckless. She is a thoughtful and careful politician. She lacks Salmond’s swagger and his natural inclination to bluff when the facts don’t suit the narrative.
Those close to Sturgeon say neither the surge in SNP membership nor a stonking great Westminster result would be sufficient to persuade her to call for “Indyref 2 – The Sequel”. Instead, she would only contemplate it if she was convinced it would be a Yes win. She will not, say sources, gamble.
As one senior SNP source put it to me, the party might well win a mandate for a referendum next year but it won a mandate for a referendum in 2011 and went on to lose it.
Back then – after decades of campaigning for the right to call a vote on the future of the UK – the SNP had no option but to call a referendum that the leadership team believed would be lost. There was a democratic imperative then.
Events and all that aside, it looks likely that Sturgeon won’t push for a second constitutional battle. This would certainly disappoint the faithful, but SNP sources say that a great Westminster result would allow the First Minister to claim, credibly, that the UK’s politics had changed, thanks to her party. It would allow her to say that the old Westminster was no more and that a “strong Scottish voice” (or strong nationalist voice, depending on your personal taste) would see that continued.
There is another practical consideration which Sturgeon will not be able to avoid. The White Paper on independence was drawn up using Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures from 2011/12, which showed that Scots sent more to the Treasury in taxes than we got back (and that’s a simplistic reading from an entirely nationalist perspective). But since then, Scotland has (using the same simplistic analysis) sent rather less than it receives.
Simply, the financial case for independence grows weaker. How that might persuade No voters to turn is anyone’s guess.
Last week’s opinion polls may have persuaded Yes campaigners that independence is on its way.
But the First Minister is yet to be convinced.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS