Every chapter of the Johnson premiership so far – from the pell-mell rush in 2019 to get the worst possible kind of Brexit done, to the current scandal over lavish external payments to MPs – has fitted perfectly with the SNP narrative that the UK is a corrupt old state which has had its day, cannot bring itself to co-operate with other nations as equals, and is hopelessly bound to the interests of a global financial elite which is irreversibly trashing the planet; and it must be hard for the First Minister and her colleagues not to feel that given the scale of the mess at Westminster, the gradual shift of Scottish opinion towards the idea of independence is only a matter of time.
The truth is, though, that while the current state of the Westminster government helps keep the SNP in power in Scotland, it often also militates against the party’s best interests, by setting up such a low bar for good governance that Nicola Sturgeon’s government can out-perform it almost by default.
That the First Minister has out-manoeuvred Boris Johnson at the current COP26 conference is obvious, for example; she has not only worked the room brilliantly in terms of asserting Scotland’s presence on the international stage, but has also held a series of substantial meetings reflecting her long-term interest in the subject, not least with global women’s organisations, and with the Under2 coalition of cities and regional governments committed to rapid carbon reduction.
Johnson, by contrast, has been blustering his way up and down the country in an effort to avoid parliamentary sleaze debates, and is clearly both preoccupied and discredited to an extent that may seriously damage the UK’s authority in steering the event to any successful outcome.
Yet in relation to climate policy as in some other areas, the First Minister’s vastly more effective performance on the international stage conceals some serious failures – to meet Scotland’s own carbon emissions targets, to strengthen Scotland as a manufacturing centre for renewable energy systems, and above all to confront the huge gas and oil interests that are still trying to stall and divert the climate debate, after decades of near-criminal disinformation and denial.
The truth is that in this field as in many others, there is currently no pressure on the Scottish government to raise its game – by, for example, declaring its straightforward opposition to any further opening up of new oil and gas fields – because it can always present itself as the lesser of two evils; and that is a dangerous situation for the SNP in at least two ways.
In the first place, it is quite clear from the current polling figures in Scotland – which show support for independence still just below 50 per cent – that even under a fiercely unpopular UK government, the historic ties that bind the Union remain strong.
It will take more than a display of slightly superior competence, or slightly greater concern for social justice and cohesion, to encourage the as yet undecided to reimagine those bonds in a different form, and to embrace the idea of independence.
It will take, at the minimum, a plan, a vision, a stronger set of distinctive policies, a series of robust answers to troubling questions, and also a road map that explains how the transition will be negotiated, in order to avoid the major disruptions associated with the botched negotiation of Brexit.
And above all, it will take that kind of plan to make the independence movement resilient to sudden changes in the English, and therefore the UK, political landscape.
The idea of perpetual Tory government from London has become a common trope among independence supporters; but if the Tory meltdown continues and a UK election comes early, if English voters make one of their sudden volte-faces and decide that even Keir Starmer has to be better than Johnson and his crew – well, it may be that Scotland’s vision of an independent future is now so well advanced that the SNP can take the referendum Starmer might offer, and win it; or it may be that ever-pragmatic Scottish voters decide they will give the British state one more last chance to reform and redeem itself.
Long-term supporters of independence hate to consider this possibility, of course; for them, the journey to “yes” is a one-way ticket, supported by a strong ideological belief in national sovereignty as a good in itself.
Most human beings, though, are of a different mind. Faced with competing political structures, they tend to view them pragmatically, for what protections they afford, and what kind of future they offer; and if the UK greatly improves its offer, they will undoubtedly feel free to retreat from the idea of independence, and give the Union another go.
There is, in other words, no room at all for complacency on the part of the SNP leadership; no time for popcorn, and very little for schadenfreude, however enjoyable.
The case for Scottish independence is strong, and greatly supported by the striking success of many nations of similar size, all around us in northern Europe.
Yet it needs constant burnishing, sharpening, and adaptation to changing times; and above all, it needs a Scottish government with the courage to offer a truly sustainable and inspiring future, if Scotland is to be ready at the moment when the tectonic plates of politics shift again, and a clear pathway to independence lies open, once more.