Last week’s coup de théâtre has boosted nationalist support, but it’s unlikely to bring the dream of independence any closer, writes Euan MCColm.
No political party has better understood the dreams of Scottish voters in recent years than the SNP.
Obviously, when it came to the party’s central mission of achieving independence, it found itself out of step with the public, but in elections to both Holyrood and Westminster since 2007, the Scottish nationalists have dominated.
If you ask any of those – whether senior politician, special adviser or spin doctor – involved in the SNP’s transformation from fringe players to political titans how they achieved this remarkable turnabout, they will tell you two things.
First, the SNP fundamentally changed its message. Where, previously, the nationalists had stuck with tried and tested (and only partially successful) messages about Scotland’s victimhood within the Union, they now told a more optimistic story.
When Alex Salmond began his second stint as SNP leader, in 2004, he didn’t talk about what Scotland couldn’t achieve while it remained inside the UK but what it could be if his party ran the devolved administration in Edinburgh.
The second thing an SNP player who was in the game at the time will tell you is that the Scottish Labour Party had lost its way; a decades-long connection with enough voters to ensure victory after victory was more fragile than anyone had thought.
The SNP’s change of tack, from perpetually whining about Britain to cheerleading for a bright new Scotland, collided beautifully with Labour’s predicament.
Funny to think now, as former politician Salmond spends his life trying to restart fights long lost, that back then he was the master at soothing unionist fears. A vote for the SNP wasn’t necessarily a vote for independence but an indication that you were willing to give the nationalists a crack of the Holyrood whip.
With a change of approach, the SNP transformed the tone of Scottish politics which, between 2007-11, saw the nationalists happily work with Tories to ensure delivery of policies.
Those days might as well be a century ago, so dramatically has the political atmosphere changed. Now grievance and complaint – amplified as loudly and delivered as hysterically as possible – passes for debate.
Political discourse in Scotland is now conducted in a tone so increasingly shrill that by 2020 it will be audible only to dogs. But while we can hear it, it seems to be working.
The SNP’s Westminster group stormed dramatically out of the Commons on Wednesday because Scotland had been disrespected over Holyrood’s rejection of the UK government’s EU Withdrawal Bill.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed a day later that the stunt (she didn’t call it a stunt but it was a stunt despite SNP denial that it was a stunt. There is nothing wrong with political stunts but let’s call them what they are) had encouraged more than 5,000 people to join her party.
This was all beautifully constructed by the SNP. The UK government is not – unless threatened legal challenges prove otherwise – bound by a vote in the Scottish Parliament to refuse consent for the EU Withdrawal Bill. This means the SNP simply cannot get what it says it wants, But it can create a compelling story about Scotland being ignored.
Whether the vote at Holyrood was meaningful or not (and some might even say it deserves to be placed in the “stunt” category), it created something which the UK government had no choice but to ignore or “disrespect”. Of course, this was not simply a case of villainous Westminster rejecting the views of a Holyrood vote of no legal worth, it was an outrage against Scotland, and all who live here.
Since Wednesday’s events, the political narrative has shifted in the SNP’s favour. The declaration supporting independence by Murray Foote, has added to the SNP’s momentum. When editor of the Daily Record, he had devised the famous (some may wish to prefix that) Vow front page, which saw unionist political leaders offer a more powerful devolution settlement in return for a No vote.
Just a few days after an SNP conference during which she effectively took the prospect of a second independence referendum any time soon off the table, Sturgeon seems to have the wind at her back again.
Whether this remains the case is another matter entirely. The extraordinary influx of new SNP members after the referendum, the Westminster landslide in 2015, a Brexit result that saw Leave win despite most Scots voting Remain – none of these things has given the pro-independence movement the fillip it needs to take it over the 50 per cent mark.
Instead, the appetite for constitutional change remains as it was four years ago.
So does the arrival of new members who joined after the Westminster walkout signal that things are about to change? I have my doubts.
The sight of furious SNP MPs storming out of the House of Commons debating chamber helped build strong political narrative but with the Brexit process a continuing mess of complexity and unanswered (perhaps unanswerable) questions, the SNP may struggle to keep the focus on their party line of attack.
Not so long ago, the SNP’s agreed line on the prospect of a second independence referendum was that Sturgeon was not minded to hold one until opinion polls showed – over a substantial period of time – support for independence at 60 per cent. This, even her opponents privately conceded, was reasonable .
It would appear that this requirement is no longer considered necessary.
The SNP is now fighting an attritional battle, a long, slow grind where even the flicker of another polling point in favour of Yes has members champing at the bit for another round of constitution wars. But every time, in recent years, the SNP has heaved in an attempt to lift its cause, it has succeeded only in further entrenching the positions of both Yes and No voting Scots.
And so the argument rages on, ever louder, ever angrier, supported by the curious belief of politicians that this is now the sort of thing voters really want to hear.