Euan McColm: Nicola Sturgeon divides and rules with myth of the mandate

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Nicola Sturgeon’s indyref rhetoric rises several pitches but the election hasn’t changed the arithmetic, writes Euan McColm

An enduring myth about the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence is that it was regarded by all as a great celebration of democracy. According to the SNP version of events, nationalists and unionists alike entered into the constitutional debate with joy in their hearts. It didn’t matter what side of the debate we were on, we just glad to be involved.

Nicola Sturgeon at a photocall with victorious MPs at Dundee's V&A. Picture: Neil Hanna

Nicola Sturgeon at a photocall with victorious MPs at Dundee's V&A. Picture: Neil Hanna

The truth is that the independence referendum campaign was an entirely miserable process for anyone who believes in the maintenance of the United Kingdom. For the majority of Scots, the prospect of victory for the nationalists was a source of anxiety, the prospect of Alex Salmond leading a newly independent Scotland a source of grave concern.

Of course, the SNP had to spin a version of events which glossed over the uncomfortable truth that 2014’s vote on the constitution did nothing but create division.

I regret to report that the nationalists are at it again.

Since the result of the general election, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has told a story of a Scotland united against a common enemy in the shape of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. So deep is our loathing for the Conservative PM that we demand another referendum on independence. This is a truth against which nobody can argue.

Except, that is, for anybody who cares to look at the election result.

It is undoubtedly the case that the majority of Scots did not vote for Johnson’s party. Only a quarter of us backed the Conservatives. But it is also the case that only a minority – 45 per cent of us – backed the SNP. Even if we include the vote for the party’s fellow nationalists, the Scottish Greens, the vote for pro-independence parties on 12 December reaches only 46 per cent.

Despite this, Sturgeon and her fellow SNP politicians have spent the past week arguing that she has a mandate to hold a second referendum.

This is something of a leap. And it comes with the claim that the people of Scotland – whether they are in favour of independence or not – wish to have the right to decide on the matter again.

Even though it is nothing of the sort, the election result is, says Sturgeon, evidence that Scots would like the Scottish Government to have the power to call a second independence referendum.

Currently, it is the case that the right to permit a referendum on independence resides in Westminster. Sturgeon would like to see that power transferred to Holyrood (well, of course she would) and she now argues that the nation is firmly behind her.

It may well be the case that there exists a substantial number of pro-UK Scots who hanker for the stressful experience of a second independence referendum, but I sincerely doubt this.

Sturgeon – who succeeded Salmond promising to be a unifying figure in 2014 and has spent the past five years being every bit as monomaniacal as her mentor – will not, I think, win many converts to the cause using the sort of rhetoric she’s deployed in recent days.

She has talked of Scotland being held in the Union against its will. You can’t, she says, “lock us in a cupboard and turn the keys and hope everything goes away”.

This nonsense might play well with those fully converted to the nationalist cause, but it is, I think, a little shrill 
for those yet to be convinced that Scotland’s best future lies in breaking from the UK.

If Scots felt, as Sturgeon claims we do, imprisoned in the Union against our will, surely the great majority of us would have backed nationalist parties last week?

For the past five years, the First Minister has spun a yarn of unstoppable growing support for independence. Each and every political development has been hailed as proof that increasing numbers of Scots are leaping on the independence charabanc. But the truth is that the numbers remain broadly where they were five years ago. The SNP may have the majority of MPs and MSPs but they have only a minority of voters on their side.

During election campaigns, Sturgeon and her team can usually be heard talking about the need to protect the NHS. This is always a policy priority. In the aftermath of votes, however, the only subject deemed worthy of discussion is the constitution.

This is hardly surprising, because the fact is that, while the SNP obsesses over a referendum that the majority don’t want, the NHS in Scotland remains in a parlous state.

And then there’s the education system which continues to fail large numbers of children who leave school without even the most basic skills in literacy and numeracy. And then there’s Police Scotland, an organisation that lurches from crisis to crisis.

There is no shortage of issues which the SNP would rather not discuss while it continues to argue that independence is a panacea.

It is, quite simply, the case that, for all her talk of wishing to hold a referendum in 2020, the First Minister remains powerless to do so. She has neither the right to call a referendum nor the numbers required to win one.

And so, I suspect, that her language in recent days has been less about bringing the country together behind her nationalist project and more about throwing raw meat to those who are already on board.

These have been a frustrating few years for the ardent Scottish nationalists. Promises of a second referendum have come to naught. The momentum described by the First Minister has not materialised.

Of course, committed Yes voters will argue that the mandate Sturgeon describes is real. But it is not and no amount of magical thinking can change that reality.

Sure, Sturgeon may yet change the minds that must be changed if independence is to become the preference of a majority of Scots. And, yes, the presence of Johnson in Downing Street may assist in that process. But, right now, the independence project remains stuck in the mud and no amount of nonsense about a Scotland imprisoned is likely to change that.