STURGEON must ignore the siren indyref voices and get on with the business of governing, writes Joyce McMillan
One year on from the day of Scotland’s historic referendum; and the political landscape is changed forever, in ways that no-one could have predicted 12 months ago.
Essentially, the story so far is this: that the “No” side won the vote, but all the momentum and enthusiasm remained with the “Yes” side, which, instead of collapsing, went on to make the SNP perhaps the biggest political party per head of population in Europe – with 2 per cent of Scotland’s entire population now signed up – and to win 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in this year’s UK general election.
As I write, the party is riding high in opinion polls, 25 per cent ahead of its nearest rivals, and is apparently set for another overall majority in next May’s Holyrood elections; while the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, enjoys popularity ratings at which other European leaders can only gaze in envy. So it’s perhaps not surprising that among many of the SNP’s own members – and among those in the unionist camp who want to portray the SNP as a permanent threat to calm and stabililty – the siren song of the “second indyref” is being heard ever more loudly in the land. For some “Yes” supporters – committed online hypernats, lifelong SNP members, genuine ideological nationalists – this is a matter of passion; they cannot bear what seems to them to have been a narrow defeat suffered on a very uneven playing field, and simply ache for another chance to free Scotland from what they see as the intolerable yoke of Westminster government.
Then beyond that, there are Westminster MPs like Alex Salmond and the party’s deputy leader Stewart Hosie, who – working in a Commons environment where only the immediate threat of secession compels the government and media to pay any attention to Scotland at all – find themselves unable to resist the temptation to rattle the cage a bit, and talk up the chances of a second vote. Working hand-in-glove with them, of course, are those media organisations which are bored by the nuances of detailed constitutional discussion, but find the idea of a second indyref both easy to grasp, and likely – if anything – to dent the SNP’s approval ratings; so every mention of a new indyref receives substantial coverage, however speculative it may be. And then, in the more analytical reaches of unionist opinion, there are those who – despite their victory – seem to have sunk into a profound mood of defeatism, repeating the mantra that Scottish voters are now not to be found on the old left-right political spectrum, but are all voting solely on grounds of national identity, making a second indyref much more likely.
Yet despite this cacophony of voices talking up the idea of an imminent second referendum, the ability largely to ignore them, and to get on as effectively as possible with the business of governing Scotland, will be one of the major tests of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership over the next few years. It is fairly evident, after all, that none of the groups involved in promoting the idea is very large, or very likely to speak for the great mass of Scottish voters.
On the contrary, enthusiasts for the second referendum – and for the idea that Scottish voters will be incensed into demanding one, if the unionists’ pre-referendum “Vow” is not kept – represent only a tiny politically-obsessed segment of the population. The average Scottish voter has apparently never even heard of the two new top-down sets of powers – known as “Calman”and “Smith” – that are currently being bestowed on the Scottish Parliament; the idea that failure to implement them would cause mass popular outrage is therefore as foolish as the assumption that most Scots ever cared about them in the first place.
For in truth, and as ever, most Scots are not that interested in matters constitutional, except as a means to an end; contrary to the rumour put about by depressed unionists, they mostly continue to vote – insofar as they can – for whatever party seems likely to deliver competent government that actually cares about social justice, about long-term sustainability, and about mapping out a viable future for Scotland in increasingly crisis-ridden times.
So long as Nicola Sturgeon maintains her focus on those demands – and her famously instrumental view of independence as a means for achieving them – her popularity is likely to remain high.
If she is seen, though, to be toying with the idea of a second referendum at a time when most Scots have no appetite for it, she will be perceived not only as having doctrinaire nationalist priorities that set her apart from mainstream opinion, but as lacking simple political judgment: for if one thing is clear, it’s that the SNP would be very unwise to attempt a second indyref unless they can be absolutely sure of winning it, a situation that will not be achieved until support for independence is routinely running at least 10 per cent higher than at present.
None of this means, of course, that independence sometime in the next 15 years is impossible, or even unlikely; the Westminster government’s obvious and increasing indifference to Scotland, combined with the weakness of all three unionist parties at Holyrood, suggests the opposite.
What the SNP leadership should remember, though, is that for Scotland, independence is likely to be one of those experiences that come best, not because we aim directly for them, but because, in aiming for something else – in this case, for a restored commitment to real social justice, and for an end to the failed economic orthodoxy that lies behind the current cult of austerity – we find ourselves there, almost in spite of ourselves. This is something that has been said about happiness, of course, and about love.
And although independence, if and when it comes, is likely to be a more arduous experience than either of those, it seems to me that it is more likely to work well, and to win wholehearted consensus support, if we reach it by striving to do what seems politically right, and by gradually claiming all the powers we need to achieve that; rather than by making a fetish of independence itself, or of the referendum we would finally need to hold, in order to make it a reality.