Scottish independence: Nicola Sturgeon's time as First Minister may be coming to an end with Ukraine and cost-of-living crises affecting support for leaving UK – Joyce McMillan

Saturday lunchtime, and I am at my desk staring at a small image on my phone screen, interviewing a former Ukrainian culture minister, now a soldier, about his transition from actor to politician, and from politician to fighter.

Nicola Sturgeon may decide to quit as First Minister if she cannot deliver an independence referendum next year (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/PA)
Nicola Sturgeon may decide to quit as First Minister if she cannot deliver an independence referendum next year (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/PA)

From time to time, as he talks, I am fleetingly reminded of faint analogies with Scotland; the big neighbour, the strong family relationships that bind them to it, the political difference of opinion over the European Union.

Yet what is also clear to me is that it would be a kind of obscenity even to mention Scottish politics to him at this moment, as he sits in a barricaded room in central Kyiv, wearing a bullet proof jacket, and I sit in the comfort of my Edinburgh flat.

Whatever our views on Scottish independence – and it’s my own view that recent world events, from Brexit to the intensifying climate crisis, make the medium-term case for it ever more compelling – it often seems almost impossible to raise the question of further disruptive change, amid the current maelstrom of global crises; and it’s against this backdrop that we must read today’s Scotsman/Savanta poll both on independence voting intentions, and on whether the independence debate should effectively be paused, in the light of current events.

The poll shows that support for independence has declined very slightly since January, to 48 per cent among those who expressed a view, compared with 52 per cent against; and that 59 per cent of those questioned believe the war in Ukraine is a good reason for pausing the independence debate, with 52 per cent also thinking that the current cost of living crisis should delay discussions.

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Now it goes without saying that the very framing of these questions will enrage many independence supporters, who would rather, for example, see voters asked whether Scotland would not be better able to tackle the current cost-of-living crisis if it had the full powers of an independent state. The poll, though, also fascinatingly highlights three factors, all of which present the Scottish Government with difficult strategic questions about how to take forward its main political project, in the coming months.

The first is the undeniable impact of the Ukraine crisis on the fortunes of Boris Johnson, who was losing the support of large sections of his own party over his disgraceful behaviour during the pandemic, and was facing possible criminal charges, when the Ukraine crisis intervened, offering him the chance – despite his party’s close connections to friends of the Russian regime – to present himself on the global stage as a latter-day Churchill, and a friend of freedom and democracy. It’s therefore hardly surprising that support for Scottish independence has notched down slightly since January, when the “Partygate” scandal dominated every news story.

Nor, secondly, is it surprising that, as during the height of the pandemic, many people feel that “this is not the time” to be debating independence. In moments of relative confidence, peace and prosperity, the cautious middle ground of Scottish voters might be tempted to give the huge opportunities of independence a whirl; but in times of crisis – as Nicola Sturgeon learned to her cost after the Brexit vote of 2016 – they generally prefer to stick to what they know.

Yet thirdly, despite the extent of the crises we face, the debate shows no sign – in this poll or anywhere else – of going away. Support for independence remains fairly steady, at a higher level than in 2014; and many independence supporters – appalled that Scotland still remains chained to such a profoundly questionable and compromised UK Government – rightly argue that, given the large shift towards “yes” achieved during the 2014 campaign, it is more than possible that another vigorous campaign would have the same effect.

The First Minister is therefore caught for now in a painful double bind, unable to delay a referendum campaign for much longer without alienating ever-larger groups of independence supporters, and yet unable to campaign actively for independence without a high risk of alienating the very undecided and fearful voters she most needs to persuade; and all of Scottish politics seems caught with her.

My own feeling, for what it is worth, is that the extent of the current global crisis, coming on top of the pandemic, means that the forces which could lead to a successful Scottish independence referendum for the SNP are simply not aligned at the moment, and may not be for another half-decade.

The sheer inability to obtain from the present UK government an agreed referendum in 2023, with the same level of recognition as in 2014, may effectively end Nicola Sturgeon’s career as First Minister at that point, since she will probably feel she has given the project her best shot, and has not been able to deliver under current circumstances.

Further, the UK itself may begin to change in 2024. In the detail of the Scotsman poll, it is clear that Labour, under Keir Starmer, is at last beginning to creep into a slightly stronger position in Scottish politics, overtaking the Conservatives as Scotland’s second party; and if Keir Starmer can win a UK election in 2024, cautious Scottish voters will almost certainly be tempted, once again, to give the Union another chance.

In the end, the decaying quality of UK democracy, its still unchallenged imperial dreams, and its failure to embrace full membership of the European Union, may well still scupper the Union between England and Scotland, in the fullness of time.

To take advantage of that moment, though, Scotland’s “yes” movement will need to be both ready and patient, as it was at the key devolution moment in 1997; and for now, in an independence camp vague about details, and tired of waiting, both readiness and patience seem to be in short supply.

Joyce McMillan’s interview with former Ukrainian minister Yevhen Nyshchuk will appear in Scotland On Sunday this weekend

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