Euan McColm: Sturgeon's farewell to best laid indyref plans

What with the presence of a maniac in the White House and the miserable chaos at Westminster over Brexit, it's easy to forget that less than a year ago, Scottish independence was the issue that dominated our politics.

The SNP leader does not have long to convince the faithful that they will get another shot at independence
The SNP leader does not have long to convince the faithful that they will get another shot at independence
The SNP leader does not have long to convince the faithful that they will get another shot at independence

As 2017 began, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was formulating plans for a second crack at the prize. Defeat in 2014 was a mere blip for the SNP and the wider nationalist movement; a rush and a push and victory would be theirs.

Unionist politicians, though reassured by the SNP’s loss of its Holyrood majority in 2016 that they had the majority with them, were deeply unsettled by Sturgeon’s springtime announcement that a second independence referendum would take place either late in 2018 or early in 2019.

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The public response from unionists was bullish: the Scottish people didn’t want a second referendum and the First Minister was on course for career-ending defeat.

Privately, though… Privately, Scottish Labour and Conservative politicians were worried. Sure, the polls were still on their side but the nationalists had come closer than anyone had predicted in 2014. Perhaps Sturgeon could achieve what Alex Salmond could not.

Behind the scenes, unionists MPs and MSPs discussed who might head up a second Better Together campaign (former chancellor Alistair Darling has been quite clear that once was enough for him) and struggled to think of a suitable candidate.

Then there was the matter of whether Labour and the Conservatives should run separate campaigns. The SNP had done much to damage Labour with the charge that it had stood “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the Tories during the 2014 campaign – maybe next time things would have to be different.

The SNP had played a long, often exhausting game of “maybe yes, maybe no” on the matter of a second referendum. Sturgeon’s decision to show her hand rattled her opponents, no matter how confident they may have seemed in interviews on the subject.

Prime Minister’s Theresa May’s decision, just weeks after Sturgeon’s announcement, to call a snap general election was to scupper the First Minister’s plans in a way few would have predicted.

The loss of 21 of its 56 MPs sent the SNP a clear message that Scottish voters didn’t want indyref2. The First Minister “reset” her plans. Relief among unionist politicians was palpable.

As we move into 2018, Sturgeon will soon have to make clear exactly what she proposes. She did not, after all, announce the cancellation of her referendum plans. The First Minister’s position remains that the Scottish people should participate in a second referendum. The only tweak is to the timing; it should take place after the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal are known.

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With the UK on course to leave the EU in the spring of 2019, Sturgeon will soon have to begin laying the groundwork for a subsequent referendum.

That’s if she isn’t bluffing, of course.

Nationalists now growing impatient with the First Minister over her hesitancy will, I think, be further disappointed in the year ahead.

Sturgeon is understandably keen to maintain the myth that she is in control of when another referendum takes place but the power to make this decision lies with Westminster and, after the general election showed a majority of votes for unionist parties, the UK government would have no hesitation in rejecting the First Minister’s proposal.

This, I suppose, might play into the SNP narrative about a Scotland forced to bend the knee by the Westminsters (which is what we must now call the English) but no matter the grievance dividend, it will not get Sturgeon the referendum she says she wants.

The challenge for the First Minister in the months ahead is to keep her hardcore supporters happy with just enough constitutional meat while winning back the trust of unionist Scots who were previously happy to back the SNP in Holyrood elections but who are now weary of and frustrated by the nationalists’ obsession with another referendum.

This time last year, the Scottish Labour Party seemed near to extinction. The SNP had supplanted it as the party of choice for old-fashioned left-wingers and modern centrists, alike, while Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories had made the pro-Union case their own.

In the foreign country of a year ago, a major part of Scottish Labour’s problem was the perception that it was a branch office of the party in London. The SNP made an art-form of “London Labour” taunts and, eventually, the damaging perception that Labour in Scotland was answerable to officials in London rather than to voters grew.

Scottish Labour’s new leader, Richard Leonard, may find that branch office smear less damaging than it once was. The SNP isn’t worried about losing votes to Leonard in traditional working class communities. It’s worried about losing them to Jeremy Corbyn.

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Where, until recently, “London Labour” spoke of the Tony Blair era of centrism and contentious decisions about war, now it describes the sort of radical politics that the SNP wanted us to believe it now espoused. Leonard hasn’t much presence, but in the months to come, he won’t need it. If he’s wise, he’ll let Corbyn take the lead. If Scottish Labour’s revival is to continue, it will be thanks to Corbyn’s, rather than Leonard’s, appeal (elusive though it remains to me).

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson entered 2017 making big claims about her party’s prospects. After leapfrogging Labour to become the second largest party at Holyrood in 2016, the Tories have real momentum, she said.

May’s snap election could have derailed that particular train but, instead, Davidson presided over a remarkable transformation in her party’s fortunes. The challenge for Davidson in the year ahead is, perhaps, greater than that faced by any of her opponents. Can she really build further support for the Scottish Tories and give herself a credible chance of becoming first minister in 2021?

And, even if she has the chops to bring more voters across to the Conservatives, will she be able to do so while the UK government careers towards a catastrophic no-deal Brexit?

The last year has taught our political leaders about the dangers of making plans. I wonder which of them will survive 2018.