‘It’s like crack cocaine – at first it’s amazing then it ends up controlling you.” Anyone wondering why First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has failed to rule out a second independence referendum despite conceding the issue cost the SNP votes in the general election might find a clue in that brutal analogy suggested by a veteran campaigner.
In the days following defeat for Yes in September 2014’s referendum, defiant pro-independence supporters began joining the SNP in droves. Within a few weeks, more than 100,000 people had signed up.
You’ll recall the adoring crowds who gathered to cheer Sturgeon; you’ll remember, perhaps, the name “Stewart Hosie” in 20ft high letters.
There are some in the SNP (around long before the zealous “independence now!” brigade joined) who believe that where Sturgeon once held that crowd of newcomers in the palm of her hand, she is now under their thumbs.
This weekend, the First Minister appears a lonely figure. Her decision on Tuesday not to rule out indyref2 before the next Holyrood election in 2021 has baffled – and, in some instances, infuriated – colleagues.
Sturgeon told MSPs that she would “reset” the Scottish Government’s timetable for a second referendum (Previously, the First Minister had stated her intention to hold another vote either late next year or early in 2019) but fell far short of shutting down what is fast becoming a toxic issue for the SNP. According to one campaigner, the First Minister’s statement was a “clusterf***”. I’m told that SNP staffers and politicians believed it was Sturgeon’s intention on Tuesday to draw a line through any plans for another constitutional vote for the remainder of this parliament. It’s even suggested that Sturgeon believed that’s what she was doing.
Unsurprisingly, the First Minister’s decision to continue playing a game of “maybe-I-will-maybe-I-wont” on the matter of a second referendum has delighted political opponents.
Ruth Davidson led the Scottish Conservative Party to its best general election result in decades by promising to oppose a second referendum. With this in mind, some senior SNP figures believed the First Minister’s priority should have been to shut down the issue that was causing voters to go Tory.
Instead, Davidson remains fully armed with the prospect of indyref2.
For her unwillingness to be unequivocal on the referendum issue, some colleagues blame those new members, the majority of whom want to see another vote on the future of the United Kingdom sooner rather than later. Those members bring in a lot of money and they deliver a lot of leaflets, reasons one colleague of the First Minister, so she must have felt she had to give them some meat.
Despite leading the SNP to victory in the election, Sturgeon leads a party in decline. Shameless attempts to use any and all political developments as a lever for another referendum have finally backfired on the First Minister. She is, to a small degree (for now) damaged.
If Sturgeon feels those unionists who were prepared to vote SNP in the name of “competent government” have now gone for good, it makes perfect sense for her to turn to the faithful and to gee them up.
The First Minister has given the large and enthusiastic SNP membership hope that a second referendum is on the agenda. She has kept the fire alight.
But there is, we shouldn’t forget, a fundamental flaw with Sturgeon’s suggestion that indyref2 might come before 2021: the UK government won’t allow it to proceed. Davidson is on the up after capturing the mood of a substantial number of pro-UK voters. She will be able to declare that she kept her promise when whoever is Prime Minister announces that it is not the time for another divisive referendum campaign.
The results of the general election – with the vast majority of Scots voting for candidates representing pro-UK parties – along with consistent polling will credibly allow the UK government to scupper the First Minister’s plans.
Sturgeon must know this. It is inconceivable that she believes the necessary permission for a referendum will be forthcoming.
The obvious question then is, what is the First Minister playing at?
One theory from within Scottish parliamentary ranks is that Sturgeon is so seriously spooked by the backlash at the polls which saw 21 SNP MPs turfed out that her priority now is to use the inevitable block of the referendum as a way of regenerating the narrative of Scotland being subservient to Westminster in the 2021 referendum campaign. An especially cynical SNP insider points out that an advantage of this ploy is that the First Minister wouldn’t actually have to go through with a referendum she would lose.
There is, say MSPs from across the political spectrum, a different attitude towards Sturgeon in the Holyrood chamber these days. Opponents are more willing to jeer and attack than ever they were before. And, as this opposition has grown sharper, Sturgeon has grown more tetchy.
Some years ago, the First Minister was thought of as short-tempered and rather dour. She’s starting to seem that way again.
There is criticism, too, from inside the SNP of the First Minister’s announcement that she would spend the summer ahead working to strengthen the Yes movement. With opposition taunts about not getting on with the day job cutting through, Sturgeon was expected by colleagues to loudly make education her priority.
Not only did the First Minister not listen to voters, says one insider, she then rubbed their noses in the fact she was ignoring them. The SNP’s loyal members will surely enter into a summer of “widening engagement” with shrieking enthusiasm; we can look forward to seeing endless selfies of the First Minister with happy SNP T-shirt-wearing campaigners.
But what a self-defeating exercise it will be. Until Sturgeon kicks her habit of putting independence before all else, she is on course to lose the next Holyrood election.