With an election seemingly always just round the corner, decisions are based on gaming the next one, so in Edinburgh the SNP’s 19-strong group is finding a majority deal hard to strike because, unlike the dolts preceding them, the new Scottish Labour leadership recognised that validating and empowering the party which has replaced it as Scotland’s political establishment was a one-way ticket to oblivion.
At Holyrood, only a year after the Scottish Parliament election, the sense of panic and lack of grip which dogged First Minister Nicola Sturgeon throughout the months leading up to, and beyond, Alex Salmond’s trial and acquittal has returned because of the flagging attempts to waive away responsibility for the ferries fiasco and what looks like abuse of public money for political gain.
In Westminster, an 80-seat Conservative majority should ensure smooth passage for the UK Government’s programme, but inflation and the deepening cost-of-living crisis makes it look powerless.
Voters may decide it’s time for someone else to have a go when the election comes round, now probably two years from now, and perhaps the timing of interviews behind the publication of defeated Tory leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt’s new book Zero: Eliminating Unnecessary Deaths in a Post-Pandemic NHS, based on his experience as Health Secretary, is no coincidence.
Against the backdrop of soaring costs and rising taxes, and Labour now scoring ahead of the Conservatives for economic competence, Sir Keir Starmer has faced criticism for focussing on Partygate and the Prime Minister’s integrity, instead of the difficulties millions of people are facing, and missing an opportunity to show what he would do with power.
And if a rumour circulating in Westminster proves true, Sir Keir’s desire to concentrate on Boris Johnston’s personality, by making a clear commitment to resign if he is fined for attending the pre-organised beer and curry get-together with activists in Durham, could be fatal.
The gamble was that as Durham Police didn’t fine Dominic Cummings for his day trip to Barnard Castle, consistency would rule out fines for Sir Keir and his deputy Angela Rayner, but if it turns out the event was also attended by Labour’s Police and Crime Commissioner for Durham, Joy Allen, then the investigation would have to be passed on, almost certainly to the Metropolitan Police.
Having now handed out over 100 fixed penalties for Downing Street shindigs, all bets would be off and a Labour leadership election on.
As it stands, whether it’s Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson in Number 10 and Sir Keir Starmer or, most likely, Lisa Nandy (who has been campaigning on the cost-of-living) leading the opposition, there isn’t much suggestion it will make much difference to the outcome of a general election in Scotland and currently, with 45 MPs, the SNP would still be the biggest party.
But then there is also the question of the SNP’s leadership and, while there is no conceivable challenger to Ms Sturgeon since the “awkward squad” defected to Alex Salmond’s Alba, if she fails to deliver an independence referendum in 2023 as promised then she might have some decisions to make.
Although there would be no chance of a resignation immediately before a general election in May 2024, another strong showing would allow her to claim to be handing over the party in good shape and give her replacement the chance to bed in before the 2026 Holyrood elections. The question is to whom.
The clear evidence from every poll is that while voters overwhelmingly endorse the SNP as the party that stands up for Scotland, an equally clear majority do not want a referendum on Ms Sturgeon’s timetable, and if there was one then the majority would not support separation.
Despite not having the power to call a referendum, it was therefore astute of Michael Gove to say the UK Government would not seek to block a vote in the courts, even if others do, because Ms Sturgeon won’t stage a contest she’s not guaranteed to win and certainly not when there are divisions within her own party about the prospectus they would be presenting, particularly on the key question of currency.
Some now recognise the issue is so toxic that even a transition period to a new Scottish pound or the euro would put off too many people, and that ceding monetary control would be a price worth paying to gain political independence. Others would argue with justification it wouldn’t be real independence at all, but asking people to take a punt on the future of their money when prices are soaring would be madness.
Add that to the very real Brexit border issues now being played out in Northern Ireland and it is abundantly clear that, even with a team of civil servants working on the case at public expense, the SNP is simply not in a position to call a referendum it can win by the end of next year.
Even if a new target of September 2024 was set, and a May election used as another vote on a vote, and even if Boris Johnson is still in Number 10, the key questions voters want answering will still get the same wrong answers.
Independence should be a means to deliver a prosperous future, not an end in itself, but implications of a break-up, and the Scottish Government’s continued focus on something it dare not deliver, can only hobble economic growth.
If the SNP is the party that stands up for Scotland, then now should be the time to be honest and say that although independence remains a long-term goal, the immediate priority is prosperity, especially with recovery still slower than the rest of the UK. Its Growth Commission should be for the here and now, not the never-never, and until that happens the impasse will never be broken. Stuck.