The past month I have focused on the miserabilist and declinist economic policies of Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt. Yet for all their wrong-headed decisions that will make us all poorer and should put Labour back in power they are mere amateurs compared to the existential threat Nicola Sturgeon now poses to the SNP and broader nationalist movement.
Year after year First Minister Sturgeon told her supporters there was a second referendum just over the horizon. Unsurprisingly, they liked what they heard and dutifully turned out in numbers for marches, rallies and elections.
Having once argued there should not be a further referendum on secession from the UK until support for such a huge and divisive upheaval commanded 60 per cent support of the Scottish public over a consistent period of some six months, the Brexit result was used as a pretext to justify a change in circumstances.
Like so much that is abnormal about Scottish politics this narrative was given a great deal of credence even though it was an invented grievance.
David Cameron had already announced there would be a UK referendum on EU membership a full 21 months before the Scottish independence referendum took place – it was a well-known fact – and the SNP Government’s own White Paper had quite specifically warned voters that Scotland remaining in the UK could result in the UK voting afterwards to leave the EU despite Scotland voting differently. (This was brazen given the EU attested Scottish independence would have immediately ended EU membership and required Scotland’s application to join as a new member.)
Despite knowing the risk of the UK leaving the EU, Scots still voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK. There was no change in circumstances that were not known, but Sturgeon sensed a chance to beat the second referendum drum. Soon she was aided and abetted by some foolish unionists who demanded a second EU referendum, ignorant or unconcerned that such a position normalised Sturgeon’s call for another vote.
Yet the Scottish public did not demand another referendum. Yes, they would still vote in large numbers for the SNP – securing some famously impressive results that kept Sturgeon in power – but it was never enough to secure a majority plus one of the voting public that could be called a mandate – never mind attaining 60 per cent on any occasion at all.
As various elections passed and we went through four prime ministers in the space of six years the UK Government position of opposing a second Scottish referendum remained in place. Still, despite every tub-thumping speech, the bridge protests, the repeated marches and highly divisive emotional language, Sturgeon could find no way to deliver a referendum.
She made no attempt to win over floating voters or UK-doubters by answering the key questions of currency, pensions, the huge annual deficit her government was running up – or how Scotland would be able to meet the strict requirements of EU membership. Instead, in a Trumpian detour she actually embraced the notion of creating a hard border between Scotland and England.
Failing to win the majority of first preference votes in the Holyrood constituencies in the 2021 elections, meant Sturgeon, the SNP and Greens, together, had no moral mandate – and no political mandate existed because you cannot claim a mandate over an action you have no power to execute.
Recognising this, and being told by her own Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain, that her proposed Referendum Bill would not be legal and therefore open to challenge she sought, by her own submission, a judgement of the UK Supreme Court. Last Wednesday the answer was as bad as it could be. Not only did the Scottish Parliament have no authority to hold a referendum on secession, not even an advisory referendum, the Court also ruled Scotland was not a subjugated or oppressed colony of the UK but a fully participating part of the British state.
In response, Sturgeon has turned to her “Plan C” to make the next general election a “de facto” referendum – in the hope she might at last gain the majority support that has so far alluded her to hold a second referendum. In another take from the Trump playbook she has labelled those opposing her as being anti-democratic, that she leads a “democracy movement”, insinuating those against her are enemies of democracy.
And yet Nicola sturgeon could force a “de facto” referendum before Christmas if she really wanted one. While she cannot call an early Holyrood election, as she does not have the support of eighty-six MSPs it would require, she could resign as First Minister and then with her coalition majority block all attempts to appoint a new First Minister for 28 days. This would initiate a Holyrood election. But what if she lost? Democracy?
Or her phalanx of trusty SNP MPs at Westminster could all resign – together or singularly – and create by-elections that could build up the momentum that would make a new referendum seem unstoppable. But what if some of them lost? Democracy?
It would only take one seat to return to Labour, Conservatives or Lib Dems for the SNP to be looking very stupid. And what if, say, in East Dunbartonshire Conservatives and Labour left the by-election to the Lib Dems, to be reciprocated in other seats? The SNP would undoubtedly lose on many occasions.
The harsh truth is Sturgeon and her nationalist politicians are not willing to submit themselves to an immediate democratic test. The power, the salaries, the expenses, the pensions are too important – no one is willing to step forward and put their reputation on the line.
Last week the Supreme Court called out Nicola Sturgeon for her Trumpian bombast – and it is only a matter of time before she is First Minister no more.
Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and editor of ThinkScotland.org