Leaders: The referendum question for Sturgeon

Lack of discipline among SNP candidates has put Nicola Sturgeon in a tricky situation on key issue

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: PA
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: PA

NICOLA Sturgeon could not be clearer. She is not using this UK general election to seek a mandate for another referendum on independence. The SNP manifesto spells this out: “The SNP will always support independence – but that is not what this election is about.” In fact the word “independence” barely features in the manifesto’s 56 pages.

Yesterday the First Minister was quoted specifically rejecting the idea that a majority of Scottish seats or votes on 7 May could be used as justification by the SNP to push for a second vote on Scotland gaining full sovereignty. Sturgeon said: “Even if the SNP won every seat in Scotland, that is not a mandate to have another.”

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

So the SNP leader is clear. But are her candidates equally clear? And what about the SNP’s 100,000-plus membership – are they clear too? Not necessarily, it seems.

Yesterday Gordon Brown gave a speech in the constituency of Douglas Alexander, who was shadow foreign secretary in the last parliament. Alexander’s seat is under threat, identified in a recent poll as a likely SNP gain, with one of the nationalists’ youngest candidates, 20-year-old politics student Mhairi Black, in line to become the local MP. Labour, however, had a trick up its sleeve. Brown’s speech highlighted a video clip of Black saying the election of SNP MPs next month would be used as leverage at Westminster, to “twist their arm and get that other referendum”. Evidence also surfaced of the SNP’s Edinburgh South candidate, Neil Hay, saying with regard to a second referendum that “electoral law will prevail if the SNP take a majority of WM [Westminster] seats this year or there is another majority for the SNP in 2016. Watch this space”. And yesterday at a rally in George Square in Glasgow, Yes supporters were signing a “unilateral declaration of independence” which has also found favour with some SNP activists and councillors.

This is a problem for Sturgeon. She and her party are not talking with one voice, which raises questions over whether – on this touchstone issue – she is entirely in control of the party she leads. A decision will have to be taken in the autumn on whether the SNP manifesto for next year’s Holyrood Parliament election contains a commitment to hold a second referendum. Sturgeon wants to delay what could be a difficult conversation with her party until the summer. There is a very good reason for this. Her verdict on whether to hold another referendum will be very different depending on the outcome of next month’s vote. Sturgeon knew she would come under repeated questioning on this issue during the current campaign. And sure enough, earlier this month she elaborated on her thinking. She had no plans to hold another referendum, she said, and it would take a “material change” in circumstances before she changed her mind. Asked for an example of such a material change, she mentioned the scenario of an in/out referendum on membership of the EU in which Scotland could be taken out of Europe against its will. But she also said last week that “I will know in my gut” when the time is right, raising yet more questions about what that might entail.

The first minister’s political opponents have decided not to give her the luxury of the delay she would like on this issue. Given the statements of SNP candidates on this matter, they want to know Sturgeon’s intentions now. This seems reasonable. The SNP leadership managed to keep “indyref2” out of the manifesto for this election without having a debate in public. This will not be possible when it comes to Holyrood election, and Sturgeon will find it hard to apply the brakes to her new members’ enthusiasm for another tilt at the British state, if indeed that is her intention. Labour sees an advantage in having that debate now. The independence party may now find it impossible to avoid talking about independence.

Boris should pipe down over Scottish tones

MANY countries of the world have a tradition of playing the bagpipe. Phil Cunningham’s recent BBC TV documentary series Pipe Dream took us on a tour of many corners of Europe to explore the instrument’s varied history. He found there were numerous nations and regions in which the pipes – in their many and varied forms – were integral to the identity, pride and culture of a particular people. There may be more musically versatile pipes – the Irish uilleann pipes, for instance – but none is as famous as the Highland bagpipe, and no country in the world is more closely associated with this instrument than Scotland.

Even fans of the pipes have to acknowledge, however, that you can get too much of a good thing. Phil Cunningham, on his travels for his documentary, confessed that some variations on the pipes were a little harsh on the ear, even for somebody famed for writing music for this ­instrument.

And it is also true that even in ­Scotland, residents and office workers who find themselves next to a busker’s pitch for extended periods of time soon start wishing for a fiddle player or a Peruvian panpipe emsemble after three hours of an unaccomplished 13-year-old piper wringing out an off-tune Highland ­Cathedral.

Played well, however, there is nothing finer. As a newspaper that boasts a political editor who recently won – for the third time – the Archie Kenneth Quaich in an annual competition organised by the Piobaireachd Society, Scotland on Sunday yields to no-one in its love of the pipes. And it certainly does not yield to Boris Johnson. The move by the Greater London Authority to issue rules governing the “piercing sound” of the bagpipe is a step too far. The rules say pipers should seek somewhere to play that is nowhere near flats, offices, shops or hotels. There cannot be many spots in central London meeting that criteria. Pipers fear this is the first step towards a ban. The issue is a sensitive one, given that curbs on the pipes have, at various points in ­history, been a means of suppressing Scottish culture.

The London mayor has been a regular critic of measures which he claims mean London subsidises Scotland. We Scots are more than willing to tussle politically and economically with Boris. But he should leave the pipes alone.