Euan McColm: Indyref2 mandate eludes victorious Sturgeon

IT IS impossible not to see the SNP's success in the council elections through the prism of the constitutional debate, writes Euan McColm
Sturgeon at the count for Glasgow City Council at the Emirates Arena on Friday. Picture: John DevlinSturgeon at the count for Glasgow City Council at the Emirates Arena on Friday. Picture: John Devlin
Sturgeon at the count for Glasgow City Council at the Emirates Arena on Friday. Picture: John Devlin

At just about any point in the history of politics, the results of Thursday’s council elections would have been considered a triumph for the SNP. The nationalists trampled over their rivals to win 431 seats across the country’s 32 local authorities.

And, if that wasn’t enough (and, usually, it certainly would be), the SNP struck a devastating blow to Labour, becoming the largest party on Glasgow City Council. That’s swashbuckling stuff.

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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described her party’s victory as emphatic and she was quite correct. For a party which has been in government for a decade to record such stunning results – the SNP comfortably won more than a third of the 1,222 council seats up for grabs – is a remarkable achievement. At this stage in a government’s life, we might expect opposition parties to be making major inroads in local elections. Instead, the SNP’s dominance of Scottish politics continues to show no sign of abating.

And yet the SNP didn’t do quite well enough on Thursday.

As polling day approached, Sturgeon was at pains to insist that the council elections were not about a second independence referendum, they were about good local governance, about providing the best services. But, having played her part in ensuring the constitution is central to every aspect of political debate, the SNP leader could hardly have been surprised that her words went unheeded by opponents and a substantial number of colleagues, alike.

Of course, the council elections were about independence. Everything is about independence these days.

This being so, Thursday’s result – which saw the SNP lose just seven seats – was not good news for Sturgeon.

The First Minister’s reputation for caution was shattered in March when she announced, despite polls continually showing no increase in support for independence since the Yes campaign was defeated in 2014, plans to stage a second referendum either late in 2018 or early the following year.

Sturgeon had previously made clear that she did not intend to put the constitutional question to the voters again until a majority wished her to do so. Behind the scenes, the SNP spin was that Sturgeon would not hold a second referendum unless polls showed – for a substantial period of time – support for independence of at least 60 per cent.

The bounce that the SNP believed would be provided by the result of last year’s referendum on membership of the European Union has not, yet, materialised. No amount of fiery rhetoric about Scotland, which voted by almost two-thirds to remain, being dragged out of Europe against its will has made the slightest difference to the polls. The majority of Scots are, for now, defiantly in favour of the maintenance of the UK.

The surge in support for the Conservative Party, which came second with 276 councillors (up by 164) was achieved on the back of a campaign that centred on leader Ruth Davidson’s fitness to spearhead opposition to a second referendum. Despite a devastating night for Labour, which lost 133 seats to return 262 councillors, the number of locally elected members representing pro-UK parties comfortably outstrips the number of those representing the SNP.

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I often hear nationalists accuse their opponents of failing to recognise how Scotland has “changed”. This failure to recognise the new reality means they are doomed to continue on a downward spiral, they say.

The results of Thursday’s elections remind us that change has implications for all. Scotland has changed; the constitution dominates and distorts debate on the provision of services. 
And, yes, part of that change is the dominance of the SNP. But another part of it seems to be the solidification of opposition to Sturgeon’s desire to break up the UK.

The SNP was not gracious in defeat in 2014. A surge in membership – from less than 30,000 to more than 100,000 in days – gave the party a much needed confidence boost, but too often Sturgeon considered the desires of these true believers over the desires of the majority.

We watched as the SNP played a substantial – some sources say dominant – role in the decisions made by the Smith Commission on further devolution and then heard them complain that the agreement, to which they signed up, was all but worthless.

And always, constantly, every day since 19 September, 2014, we have heard the frequently shrill insistence that only another referendum can ensure a bright future for Scotland.

Under these conditions, is it any wonder that those who voted No are in little mood to change their minds?

Next month’s general election will see the SNP return the vast majority of Scotland’s 59 MPs, but in terms of votes, the odds are in favour of pro-UK parties taking the majority.

We do not, in the current political climate, have to rely on sometimes inaccurate opinion polls to see whether the pro-independence campaign is making progress. All elections in Scotland since September 2014 have been huge, nationwide polls on the matter.

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Sturgeon and her team believe that the process of the UK’s departure from the EU could be hugely advantageous to them. Their reckoning is that they can use the idea of a “Tory hard Brexit” to draw more Scots to the idea of independence.

This may turn out to be the case, but the First Minister has watched as event after event – from the general election landslide, to the election of the useless Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, to the result of an EU referendum that left the majority of Scots disappointed – has failed to give her cause that boost.

The First Minister’s audacious plan for a second referendum has collided with a Scottish electorate that doesn’t want it. Increasingly, it appears that Nicola Sturgeon is about to gamble her political career on a battle she’s unlikely to win.