Scottish independence: Ideological nationalists should accept SNP's long game or quit party – Joyce McMillan

SNP members who lack the patience to build an undeniable majority for Scottish independence are now more of a hindrance than a help to the party

On Tuesday of this week, the Scottish Government published a report which suggested – without dispute by its opponents – that its recent actions to combat the worst impacts of UK austerity would lift 90,000 Scottish children out of poverty, this year. If the former First Minister were to be asked about her legacy as leader, this would doubtless be one of her proudest achievements; yet to put it bluntly, in the current mood of Scottish politics, no one gave a damn.

For these days, the only Scottish political narrative that has “momentum” is the one about the inevitable fall of an over-mighty SNP after 16 years in government, and the apparently unstoppable rise of Keir Starmer’s Labour party. At the epicentre of this storm stands Scotland’s new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, a man beset – since he replaced Nicola Sturgeon three months ago – by an avalanche of hostile assumptions about his incompetence, weakness, and general unfitness for office. And this weekend, he himself will make matters worse, by holding what has become an unavoidable SNP Independence Convention in Dundee, even though the convention cannot, in its nature, directly address the social and economic issues that are currently uppermost in voters’ minds, and may very well both expose and deepen existing differences within the party.

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What’s clear, in other words, is that the campaign for Scottish independence, decisively led by the SNP for the past two decades, is now undergoing a major – and most likely prolonged – upheaval. In the week of veteran MSP Fergus Ewing’s high-profile Holyrood rebellion against the SNP-Green government, the SNP itself plainly faces some tough, and potentially divisive, decisions about what kind of 21st-century party it wants to be.

Beyond that, though, the party also has to face the fact that for the vast majority of Scottish voters, including many who support the SNP, UK politics continues to matter; and that the achievement of a large surge in support for independence is all but impossible at the point where a new Labour government seems about to take the helm at Westminster. Some dyed-in-the-wool independence supporters hate this truth about Scottish politics; they want voters to support independence as a matter of principle, and to treat all Westminster governments with equal scepticism.

The majority of voters in Scotland, though, are not ideological nationalists, of either a Scottish or a British stripe, but rather social democrats of some sort, looking for an escape from the dogmatic neoliberalism of successive Westminster Tory governments. The prospect of standing by and watching a UK Government under Keir Starmer take absolute control of Scotland’s renewables wealth, as the UK Government took control of Scotland’s oil wealth 50 years ago, may be agonising to those who remember the political and economic lessons of those times; but nonetheless, many Scots will undoubtedly shift their votes from SNP to Labour in the next general election, in their eagerness to get rid of the current appalling generation of Tories, and to see whether Labour under Keir Starmer can do any better.

All of which means that, whatever his perceived limitations as a leader, Humza Yousaf is right when he says – as he doubtless will again, this weekend – that there is no strategy for independence better than the one of building substantial and undeniable majority support for it. The First Minister may not be as brilliant a strategist as the younger Alex Salmond; but he must be aware of the polls showing how unpopular the “de facto referendum” tactic is among voters who want to use general elections to vote on the wide range of social issues they care about, and who rightly see constitutional issues as means to an end, to be dealt with in separate votes.

He must also know that most SNP members and voters agree with his relatively gradualist approach; and that despite the media storms created by a restless minority, the membership has always been cautious about staging another referendum, de facto or otherwise, under conditions where it may be lost.

Some Scottish independence supporters may lend their votes to Labour at the next Westminster election to vote out the Conservatives (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Some Scottish independence supporters may lend their votes to Labour at the next Westminster election to vote out the Conservatives (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Some Scottish independence supporters may lend their votes to Labour at the next Westminster election to vote out the Conservatives (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

At this point in its history, the SNP should have the courage and wisdom to commit itself to playing a longer game than some of its noisiest supporters seem willing to bear. What it now needs most urgently is a new manifesto for independence – a new Scotland’s Future, if you like – which is open for debate, but strives to make clear exactly how an independent Scotland would be better placed to deal with the huge social and economic issues and pressures of the coming decades. It should be a document written by politicians and campaigners, not by civil servants; and it should combine hard-headed practicality with vision, imagination, and reasonable brevity.

The SNP – as a party, not a government – should be using that manifesto both to persuade people of the arguments for independence, and as a basis for debate with others in the independence movement. It should be allying itself with the restless governments of Wales and Northern Ireland to generate a new vision of how the 21st-century politics of these islands would work, if the sovereignty of all four parts of the Union were fully recognised.

And it should, finally, be telling those who imagine there is a faster route to independence, right now, to sling their hook, and join some other party. The democratic disentangling of Scotland’s long union with England, or – more practically – its renegotiation on a more equal footing, was never going to be a short or simple process. And those who lack the strength and patience for the long game are now more of a hindrance than a help to the SNP, as it seeks to navigate the current difficult moment in its fortunes, and to prepare for the new political landscape ahead.



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