The fight for Scottish independence was never meant to get this messy - Euan McColm

It wasn’t supposed to play out like this.

The way it was meant to go was that, after succeeding Alex Salmond as leader of the SNP following defeat for the Yes campaign in the 2014 independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon would reach out to the sceptics, change hearts and minds, and create an unbeatable majority in favour of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom.

Where Salmond had been a divisive character, Sturgeon would be the unifying figure the independence figure needed to bring unionists on board.

Instead, well, it’s messy, isn’t it?

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon takes a selfie with local candidates and SNP supporters in Perth city centre during local election campaigning in April. Picture: Press Association.

When the First Minister last week announced plans for a second referendum to take place on October 19, 2023, she did so not as leader of a nationalist movement on the rise but a politician running out of options. The whiff of desperation was inescapable.

After eight years during which she has repeatedly marched her supporters half way up the hill then marched them down again (has there been a moment since 2014 when Indyref2 wasn’t within grasp?), Sturgeon now promises a referendum which - as things stand - she has no power to deliver.

The First Minister now awaits a verdict on whether the Scottish Government can, legitimately, run a referendum. It’s telling that Sturgeon didn’t have her Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain QC, pass judgement on the legal competence of her plans. But then having one’s own expert rubbish one’s plans would not have been an especially good look.

Should the Supreme Court - as sundry legal and constitutional experts believe it will - rule that the power to hold a vote on the constitution is reserved to Westminster, Sturgeon proposes that the next General Election should, in Scotland, be treated as a “de facto” referendum.

This is a non-starter. Sturgeon may wish the next election to be decided on a single issue but she is in no position to dictate to voters that it will be so. People will vote for all sorts of reasons, not least the Scottish Government’s appalling record in office. The majority of Scottish voters - as polls show - care more about health, education, and recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic than they do about the constitution.

Sturgeon has taken a lot for granted since becoming First Minister. She has assumed her vision for Scotland's future is so compelling that it was always a matter of when, rather than if, former No voters would line up behind her.

But why would they? The First Minister has treated the majority of Scots with nothing but contempt, after all.

When she has spoken to those who voted No in 2014 it has been to tell them that they’re about to change their minds. But each milestone that was supposed to convert No voters into Yessers - the election of a majority Tory Government at Westminster in 2015, victory for the Brexit campaign in the following year’s EU referendum, the installation of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister in 2019 - has come and gone and, still, polls show support for the Union remains the majority position.

Who would have thought that ignoring the 2014 result while taking endless selfies and ignoring crises in education and the NHS would have failed to be a winning formula?

Recently, a long-serving (and suffering) SNP activist told me he reckoned the worst thing that could have happened to his party after 2014 was its massive electoral success. Defeat, he said, would have given the nationalists time to rethink. Instead, elections to Holyrood and Westminster, in which the SNP dominated proceedings meant the party didn’t have time to breathe. Instead, weary campaigners didn’t enjoy a moment’s let up.

I think there’s something in that. The First Minister’s monomania has, I think, demented the positions of many of those who oppose here.

Imagine, instead, the SNP had gone into opposition and enjoyed a few years of attacking whichever party or parties made up the Scottish Government. Mightn’t that space have given the SNP room to build on existing support? Wouldn’t it have been easier to re-establish momentum for the independence cause without having to defend ongoing failures across policy areas?

Shortly after Sturgeon became First Minister, her spinners put it about that her view was there should be no second referendum until polls showed - over a period of at least six months - that backing for independence was running at higher than 60 per cent. It was easy, I suppose, for them to say as much when they believed the SNP’s trajectory was leading them towards that level off support.

Now, desperate Sturgeon will take half the vote plus one - with all the division that would create - if it means delivering independence.

There’s been much talk from SNP politicians in recent days about the refusal of the UK government to entertain a second independence being an affront to democracy. One could counter that the failure of the SNP to respect - for one single second - the 2014 result showed astonishing contempt for voters.

Independence campaigners - many of whom make the mistake of thinking every voter is a potential Yesser if only they could see the truth - tell us that the UK government will help their campaign by getting in the way of a second referendum. Scots - even if they support the union - will rebel against this denial of democracy. But what if - and I don’t think this an outlandish suggestion - those voters see a block on Indyref2 as the defence of their democratic wishes?

Sturgeon’s announcement last week felt like the beginning of the end of her leadership. There is, I suppose, an outside chance that she’ll have her way and we’ll all be lining up to vote again next October.

More likely, I think, is that Nicola Sturgeon has begun a fight which the law makes it impossible for her to win.


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