At a crossroads for Scottish nationalism Boris Johnson’s bombastic Tories aren’t the only ones making a spectacle of themselves, writes Dani Garavelli
If there was one bit of solace to be taken from last week’s ideological coup it was its potential to boost the campaign for Scottish independence. How could anyone watch Boris Johnson – a liar and a cad, with all the poise of a rutting walrus – talk up a No Deal and pledge to bring in an Australian-style immigration system without concluding: “Enough is enough”?
Each fresh cabinet appointment was a bell chiming the need for urgent action: Priti Patel, advocate of capital punishment, as Home Secretary; Dominic Raab, supporter of proroguing parliament, as Foreign Secretary; Michael Gove, butcher of the English education system, as head of the Cabinet Office. If those names weren’t enough to convince you to put your X beside the Yes box on a putative independence ballot paper, then what would it take? Katie Hopkins as Propaganda Secretary? The Big Bad Wolf as Minister for Housing?
In the three years since Leave’s victory, the two countries have drifted further and further apart. And Johnson is the best recruiting sergeant the SNP could have asked for, which is why Nicola Sturgeon was quick to say she would consider accelerating plans for the second independence referendum she has already pledged to hold before 2021.
There are huge logistical obstacles to overcome; we know the new Prime Minister is even less likely than Theresa May to grant a Section 30 order for a legally binding plebiscite. But with a UK government now aping Trumpian politics and refusing even to feign interest in its northern neighbour, there could be no better opportunity to win over No voters.
Unfortunately, this opportunity has presented itself at the worst possible time for both the SNP and the wider Yes movement, which are in the process of tearing themselves asunder.
Divisions between the left and right wings, the gradualists and the revolutionaries, the newbies and the old-timers, which were kept in check by the party machine and the need to unite behind their common cause in 2014, have exploded into the open. The internal feuding is now so visible, and the atmosphere so poisonous, the campaign is faltering, just as it ought be gaining momentum.
One of the most volatile (and unexpected) faultlines has been the reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) which – if passed – would allow trans people to self-identify and remove the requirement for medical evidence. Less than a year ago, this was regarded as an easy win – a human rights issue that would consolidate the party’s reputation as a progressive force.
But this gambit backfired. Every day now, political Twitter resounds to the angry exchanges between party members who have positioned themselves on either side of this fractious debate.
Disagreements over policy are not unusual; what sets this apart is the rancour of the rhetoric, and the bad faith, with some members of both camps resorting to abuse and others regarding it as a make-or-break issue for their continued membership of the party. So problematic has it proved that the reforms have been put on hold. However, instead of providing a cooling-off period, the delay appears to have created space for acrimony to fester and grow.
Further divisions are being caused by a perceived inertia at the top of the party. Johnson’s election has increased the pressure for action. With no obvious mechanism to achieve a second referendum, some on the fringes are demanding a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).
Given there is no evidence of a majority in favour of separation, this would be reckless in the extreme. It would leave us isolated and raise the spectre of civil disorder. And yet those who resist the idea – many of whom were campaigning for independence before their critics were born – are having their commitment questioned.
Throw into this melee, the implosion of All Under One Banner (AOUB) – the flag-fixated organisation beloved of the Trumpian tendency, but scorned by much of the mainstream, and you have a highly combustible set of circumstances.
That AOUB would self-destruct – the director of operations Manny Singh was sacked earlier this month after being reported to the procurator fiscal in connection with breaching the Civic Government (Scotland) Act – was entirely predictable, but cries of “I told you so” are hardly likely to placate those who may now be deprived of an outlet for their frustrations.
Some of the party’s current problems are of its own making. It failed to recognise that the reform of the GRA, which could be seen as pitting the rights of two oppressed groups against each other, would be trickier to steer through Holyrood than the Marriage and Civil Partnership Act. It also ignored warnings about the need for senior party figures to clamp down on the extremists who frequently threaten its credibility. It is too late now to tame those wilder elements who shout about UDI.
Though, for some, the divisions are the product of sincerely held beliefs, for others they are proxies for a power struggle between those who continue to support Sturgeon and those who support Alex Salmond.
Ever since a series of sex allegations were made against the former First Minister, and particularly since he was charged, the party appears to have been in the grip of a major power struggle between the two camps.
Whatever the outcome, and however unfair this seems, the court case has the potential to bring down the First Minister; and it has been clear for some time that Joanna Cherry fancies herself as the successor.
Meanwhile, the UK political chat is of a possible general election in the autumn. With no likelihood of Johnson experiencing a change of heart on Scotland’s right to self-determination, this could provide the best route to the SNP securing a Section 30 order.
A large rise in support for the SNP would be interpreted as a mandate for a second referendum and might allow the party to hold a position of power in a Labour minority government just as the DUP has done in the minority Tory government since June 2017.
In order to capitalise on this opportunity, however, the SNP would have to mobilise speedily and effectively. It would need to remember that only by parking its differences and uniting behind a common goal did the movement drive the Yes vote up from 27 to 45 per cent in the last campaign.
This time round, the differences are more entrenched. The efforts to undermine Sturgeon have been concerted. With the court case pending, there is little she can do but hold her nerve against the plotters and conspiracy theorists; to refuse to pander to those who fail to understand that independence – to be legitimate – must be the settled will of the Scottish people.
If the party cannot see past its internal struggles and marshal itself into some sort of fighting force, it will squander the chance to rescue Scotland from the grips of the Tory cabal and the potential catastrophe of a No Deal Brexit.
That battle can only be won by convincing the majority of Scots that independence will produce a better, more consensual kind of politics; not merely a tartan version of the back-stabbing, ego-driven lust for power which has inflicted so much damage on the UK over the last five years.