Euan McColm: A week that put second independence referendum in mothballs

Since becoming First Minister after the Yes campaign’s defeat in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon has never missed an opportunity to proclaim the need for a re-match.

Any and all political developments have been greeted by her as evidence that the people of Scotland simply must be given another opportunity to vote on leaving the United Kingdom. Even when this strategy has demonstrably proved damaging – both Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney conceded that the promise (or, if you prefer, threat) of indyref2 played its part in the nationalists’ loss of 21 seats in the 2017 general election – the First Minister has found it impossible to remove this particular record from the turntable.

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Nicola Sturgeon: Scottish independence is "bigger than" Alex Salmond

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When times are bad? Then independence is the only way to improve the lot of the Scot. When times are good? Imagine how much better they’d be with independence.

Former first minister Alex Salmond outside Edinburgh Sheriff Court on Thursday. Picture: SNS

Most recently, the chaos of Brexit has been held up by Sturgeon as a compelling reason for the break-up of the UK. The very integrity of our democracy would be threatened by the refusal of the British government to facilitate indyref2.

Recently, Sturgeon has promised that she will soon set out her thinking on a second independence referendum. Enthusiastic SNP members have taken this to mean it’s game-on for another vote on the constitution.

They are kidding themselves.

Recent weeks have been, to put things mildly, difficult for the independence movement. Tensions between Sturgeon and her predecessor, Alex Salmond, have bubbled to the surface and created a civil war in the SNP.

The instability of this situation should have been enough to force the First Minister to put the brake on the indyref2 bus. After all, a campaign divided is a campaign that will lose.

But even if she continued, through the recriminations, to harbour the hope that another referendum might be both achievable and winnable, events of the past week – Salmond’s arrest and subsequent court appearance on serious charges – must surely have convinced her to revise her assessment.

For some in the SNP – and I speak of people who consider themselves loyal to Sturgeon – the dream of a swift indyref2 is dead. “We can’t, with everything that is happening, contemplate another referendum,” says one. “We got close to winning in 2014 because we had a tight, well-disciplined campaign. Nobody serious in the SNP could argue that the time is right to kick things off again. People’s minds are elsewhere.”

From another smart Nat comes the suggestion that Sturgeon should only continue with her plan to lay out her thinking on indyref2 if she intends to clearly put it on indefinite hold. The game of “mebbes aye, mebbes naw” must come to an end and the FM should make it clear her priority is on domestic policy rather than constitutional wrangling.

I find it impossible to disagree with the assessment of these party insiders that the SNP not in a good place, right now. How could anyone?

And, this being so, their wish for Sturgeon to press pause on her referendum plans makes perfect sense. It is often forgotten in the heat of constitutional argument that the Scottish Government does not have the power to hold an independence referendum. Sturgeon – as was the case with her predecessor – would require the agreement of the UK government before putting the constitutional question to the people.

Recent Sturgeon rhetoric has pointed to her planning a politically expedient battle with Westminster over this point. The FM has spoken repeatedly about her desire to have that authority transferred from London to Edinburgh.

In normal circumstances, this battle – one that Sturgeon would lose – might have made sense. The narrative that Westminster dictates rather than listens to the Scottish parliament has served the SNP well in the recent past.

But circumstances are not normal and the FM would be open to the charge that such a fight with the UK government was little more than a diversionary tactic. And a tawdry one at that.

There has been, among pragmatists in the SNP, some frustration in recent years with the First Minister’s constant pandering to the more excitable among independence supporters. Many feel that, every time she plays to the gallery of the already convinced, she turns off those who – if independence is ever to be won – must be persuaded to change their minds. This feeling is sharper than ever right now.

I have a great deal of sympathy for those in the SNP who believe Sturgeon should, in recent years, have taken for granted the support of hardcore nationalists. After all, where else are these voters to go? A steady – even cautious – approach to the constitutional argument might not be to their taste but they are unlikely to change their minds on the key question of whether Scotland should be independent. Their votes are already in the bag.

Some might feel any declaration by Sturgeon that plans for indyref2 are on hold would represent a humiliation. I would argue that fighting to stage a vote and then losing it would be a far more damaging course of events.

The First Minister has repeatedly said she wishes to be judged on her government’s stewardship of Scotland’s education system. This must become her real priority.

The SNP is now deep in crisis and things stand to get very much worse before they get better. If Sturgeon and her party are to survive the months ahead and come out the other end as contenders to win a fourth Holyrood election, she must concentrate on proving to cautious “middle Scotland” voters that the SNP is about more than constitutional wrangling.

“It might not be what the independence and nothing less mob wants to hear,” says one activist, “but it is absolutely what has to be done if they’re ever to get what they want.”

When Sturgeon succeeded Salmond as First Minister in 2014, she promised to be a leader for all, not just for the pro-independence minority. Circumstances dictate that she must live up to those words. If she doesn’t, the chances of Scots ever voting yes to independence will grow increasingly slender.