Why the SNP need to have the courage to admit there’s no fast route to independence

Nationalists have no option but to cultivate the virtue of patience, writes Joyce McMillan

On Wednesday evening, the mighty Scottish writer Irvine Welsh – bard of Leith, and resident of many other fine global cities – took a brief break from bashing out his latest novel to appear on the social network formerly known as Twitter. He was responding to a newspaper headline about the SNP’s general election manifesto launch, which read “Majority of seats would trigger indyref talks”; but despite his long-standing support for independence, Irvine Welsh was not impressed.

“Bulls***!” he tweeted, and went on to point out the obvious: that the SNP already have – or had until the dissolution of parliament – a huge majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats. He might have added that they have held that large majority for nine years now, without their substantial presence at Westminster making any difference to the current independence stalemate, and that almost every opinion poll suggests that that majority is now about to be lost.

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The whole charade, though, only serves to emphasise the agonising difficulty of the SNP’s position, in facing this election. Even if we leave aside the party’s continuing internal difficulties, there is no doubt that its long-term winning alliance between diehards dedicated to the cause of independence at all costs, and social democrats seeking an escape from an increasingly right-wing United Kingdom, is now under unprecedented strain.

Police clash with members of the public on the day of the contested Catalan independence referendum in 2017 (Picture: David Ramos/Getty Images)Police clash with members of the public on the day of the contested Catalan independence referendum in 2017 (Picture: David Ramos/Getty Images)
Police clash with members of the public on the day of the contested Catalan independence referendum in 2017 (Picture: David Ramos/Getty Images)
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John Swinney's independence position in SNP manifesto is a complicated one

Tempted to defect

On one hand, many of the social democrats are minded to give Keir Starmer’s Labour party a chance, and to elect an MP who will have some say, however minor, in setting its priorities in government. On the other, many diehard independence supporters are in a frenzy of disappointment, incredulous that after 2014, parties of independence could hold majorities for so long, both at Holyrood and among Scottish MP’s at Westminster, and still be unable to bring the longed-for prize back within their grasp; they need to hear the old songs about imminent negotiation and a second referendum, or they may be tempted to defect to Alex Salmond’s Alba party.

As Welsh’s tweet suggests, though, for the vast majority of Scottish voters – including most of those who might vote for the SNP – it is now more than time for the SNP to cut the bulls*** aimed at its more delusional supporters, and to start talking sense about the political realities it faces. The unpalatable truth, from an SNP point of view, is that Scotland remains split roughly 50/50 on the matter of independence, and that both major Westminster parties have set their faces implacably against any second independence referendum in the foreseeable future.

A democratic outrage

In that situation, and despite constant suggestions to the contrary from the SNP’s pro-independence critics, there is simply no rapid route towards any internationally recognised form of independence; and the only way forward for the SNP and the “yes” movement therefore lies in a long and painstaking process of persuasion, in which support for independence is gradually built towards the point – somewhere between 60 and 65 per cent of public support – where to refuse to respond to it, at least with a referendum, becomes a self-evident, democratic outrage.

The SNP therefore needs to focus its independence strategy entirely on that campaign to shift opinion, and on no other fantasy solutions. It needs to recruit a new generation of thinkers and researchers to develop policies for an independent Scotland that both inspire and convince. It needs to work with others, including colleagues in Wales and Northern Ireland, on a new vision for the British and Irish Isles as a whole; because for all the old diehard talk of a “Scottish breakaway”, independence in the 21st century can never be about walking away, but always and only about renegotiating the terms of our relationship, so that the sovereignty of all nations is respected, and co-operation developed on a more equal footing.

And finally, it needs to reject with some vigour the idea constantly promoted by some independence diehards that “50 per cent plus one will do”, when in political reality it will not do at all. No serious supporter of Scottish independence could possibly want to see a vote for independence as bitterly contested, and as persistently divisive, as the knife-edge Brexit vote has been. And the history of the Quebecois and Catalan national movements – arising, like Scotland’s, in what are viewed as leading western democracies – demonstrate both the decisive impact of a second lost referendum, and the high risk of pushing for an informal and unrecognised referendum at a time when opinion remains finely balanced.

Wheel of political fortune

And what that means is that even in a world beset by terrifyingly urgent crises, the SNP and its supporters have no option, over the next decade or so, but to cultivate the virtue of patience, and to use the time well to build an ever stronger case for what the party this week called “A Future Made In Scotland”. If the work done on Scotland’s economic, social and cultural future is sound, it will stand the party and the country in good stead, in or out of the UK. If it is done in the right spirit of openness to what grassroots Scotland wants and needs, it will have an energising effect on political debate and engagement across the country.

And when the wheel of political fortune swings round again, as it surely will – as it did for Alex Salmond, in 2007 – it will have helped rebuild an independence movement more ready than ever to respond to those shifts in UK politics, and to suggest what millions across Britain already know to be true – that what is needed is not only a change of faces in Westminster government, or even a change in slogans and headline policies, but radical reform of an old imperial system of government that has had its time, and that now needs to find new forms, and new rules of association, fit for the age we live in.

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