Humza Yousaf's Scottish independence strategy puts him on course for disaster – John McLellan
I was only nine months old when the world teetered on the edge of an abyss and stepped back in 1962, and few alive today have much recollection of how it felt as war approached in 1939. Even then, it only became truly global in 1941 with the Japanese declaration of war on the USA and the British Empire the day after Pearl Harbor.
Since the Hamas massacre of Israelis two weekends ago, much has been said about the danger the world now faces, with geo-political rivalry and domino alliances lined up in a nuclear-powered Great Game which, without wise heads, could produce a global conflagration on an unimaginable scale. How does Iran react to Israel’s determination to destroy Hamas; how does the US react to Iranian aggression; how do Russia and China react to American support for Israel’s new war on Islamist terror?
Is it the distraction China needs to conquer Taiwan? And where does North Korea fit in? No one knows how one will influence the other, but there are plenty of doomsday predictions. With leaders who show little concern for human life, liberty or democracy like Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei and Kim Jong Un, anything is possible.
As in 1962 and 1939, life goes on, even if it seems small beer compared to the Middle East and what has been happening in Ukraine ─ look how far down the news agenda the Ukraine war is now slipping ─ and although domestic politics is no more or less important than it was a fortnight ago, much of it seems trivial by comparison.
Into that category must go Sunday’s debate at the SNP conference about the future of the party’s independence strategy and the vote to support First MinisterHumza Yousaf’s plan to use winning a majority of seats at the next general election as a vote to “begin immediate negotiations with the UK Government to give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”. Whatever that means.
A majority of Westminster seats, the most seats, a majority in the Scottish Parliament, the most votes in any election, the most votes for independence supporting parties… for years now the SNP and wider independence movement have wrestled with the inescapable truth reaffirmed by poll after poll that a majority of Scottish people do not support independence and, in a fracturing world, are if anything less likely to do so now than before.
It’s the modern political equivalent of discussing the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin and although the mediaeval metaphysical debate probably never took place, for all the effect Sunday’s vote will have on the SNP’s fortunes or support for independence, they might eventually wish it hadn’t happened either.
As his in-laws remain in Gaza, Mr Yousaf can be forgiven if his thoughts were elsewhere, but in due course the SNP will come to rue the day they stuck to any sort of plan to use the general election outcome as a means to open negotiations on the UK’s constitutional future. The birds in Holyrood Park’s trees know there is no chance of the next UK Government agreeing to talks about how the cause of independence can be advanced, and all the new declaration has done is give unionist voters every reason to vote tactically, which, as they did in Rutherglen and have done in Edinburgh South, they will do so enthusiastically without the need for their parties to spell it out. And no amount of goal-post moving will change the public perception of failure in the now highly likely event that the number of SNP seats is slashed from the 48 it won in 2019, even if the party holds more than the 29 seats which would represent the majority they now say should trigger some sort of process.
But let’s imagine the UK Government has a rush of blood to the head ─ as did David Cameron when, buoyed with an unexpected absolute majority at the 2015 election, he announced the EU referendum ─ and conceded a vote on independence. The proposition would be no clearer than it was in 2014, and if there is more certainty on issues like borders and currency they do a nationalist cause implacably built on the promise of rejoining the EU no favours at all. No hard trade border, no independent currency, then no EU membership. It’s that simple.
Nor would voters be likely to swallow a promise of unmatched wealth in a campaign led by two parties sworn to end North Sea oil and gas. With internal political differences, so long shielded from public gaze by Nicola Sturgeon’s grip on party discipline, now becoming an open public sore, painting a picture of a new prosperous Scotland in which the majority can believe will be difficult, if not impossible, when the various visions conflict. Tell it straight, as former MSP Andrew Wilson tried to do with the 2018 Sustainable Growth Commission, and the result was both buried and discredited.
Voters aren’t stupid and Australia’s Labor Prime Minster Anthony Albanese is now picking over the bones of a campaign in which his ill-defined plan for an “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice” was resoundingly rejected by 60-40, not just because the proposal wasn’t clear but there was a failure to understand or accept what the majority thought. Mr Albanese can console himself he did his best for what he believed in, but pressure is mounting on him to quit. While there’s no doubt Mr Yousaf believes in independence, insisting constitutional wrangling stays top of the SNP’s election agenda, when every poll tells him the opposite, will put him in the same position.
Just as David Cameron hummed his way into political history after misreading the electorate, Humza Yousaf is locked into a strategy which could cost him his job and his party its reason for being. And for the majority, there are bigger things to worry about.
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