Joyce McMillan: Sturgeon faces tricky indyref2 balancing act

First Minister has to secure strong Brexit deal at same time as keeping independence hopes alive says Joyce McMillan

Nicola Sturgeon's SNP will not be able to rely for ever on the strikingly poor performance of other parties. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA

The First Minister is not a tall woman; hence, presumably, her passion for those dizzyingly high-heeled shoes, like the natty turquoise crocodile numbers she wore to Tuesday’s Downing Street meeting between the Prime Minister and her team, and the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If her stature is small, though, the burden of responsibility she carries is ever more heavy and intractable; so much so that after another torrid week in UK politics, it’s tempting to ponder whether even Nicola Sturgeon’s worst enemy would seriously wish to change places with her, as she tries to navigate a path through the age of turbulence unleashed by the Brexit vote. To the left of her, many of her party members are champing at the bit for a second independence referendum that might give Scotland a chance of escape from post-Brexit Britain; yet on the other hand, she knows full well that there is, at the moment, no majority in Scotland for independence.

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Meanwhile, she faces the Catch-22 ratchet that the worse the economic impacts of Brexit become - and they may eventually prove very serious - the less likely Scottish voters are to screw their courage to the sticking place, and opt for independence. Economic confidence is, and always has been, the key to the mainstream success of Scotland’s nationalists; and with the oil price in the doldrums, and the Westminster government in the hands of right-wing flag-wavers who will do nothing to help rebellious Scots, she must be aware that that confidence is likely to be at a low ebb, for the next half-decade at least.

Then at home, in the Scottish Parliament, she faces the painful double-bind of increasing financial austerity, and a decade of incumbency in Scottish government that makes it ever more difficult for the SNP to shift the blame for public service shortcomings on to others. This week, for example, a highly critical report from Scotland Auditor General accused the Scottish government of having no long-term strategy for dealing with increasing demands on the Scottish NHS, and for failing to take decisive steps towards even those structural reforms it does support - such as a shift of resources into care at home for elderly and infirm patients.

There is, of course, a double irony in this, from an SNP point of view; ten years in power or not, the cuts in public spending now working their way through the system are indeed the consequence of decisions made by arch-Tory George Osborne during his Chancellorship. Yet nonetheless, Nicola Sturgeon has to pull off the complex double argument of blaming the Tories for austerity, while reassuring Scottish voters that the SNP is still able to deliver a health service they can trust, along with other high quality public services. The tax powers she now holds are too puny to be of much use in easing the situation, and yet will be thrown in her face if she fails to use them.

And her anti-Tory stance is not helped by episodes - like this week’s Scottish Government decision to back the third runway at Heathrow - which highlight the SNP’s notorious difficulty in devising and sticking to policies which will actually put the high principles they embrace into action; for the brute fact is that you cannot both take climate change targets seriously - as the Scottish Government swears it does - and back the construction of a runway to accommodate expansion in air travel, at one of the busiest airports on earth.

The great advantage which Nicola Sturgeon holds, despite all of these pressures, lies of course in the weakness of all the alternatives, at both Scottish and UK level. The Scottish Government’s position on Brexit may involve a degree of wishful thinking; but it is impossible to argue that Nicola Sturgeon’s determined effort to force the British government away from a hard Brexit is less coherent than 
current UK government policy, which barely seems to exist at all. And when it comes to domestic policy, neither of the major opposition parties at Holyrood has much to offer, in terms of alternatives; as the Auditor General herself concludes, the Scottish Government’s approach to the NHS, deeply flawed though it is, is still producing better results than Jeremy Hunt’s “reformed” system in England, or the unreformed versions elsewhere in the UK.

Yet the SNP will not be able to rely for ever on the strikingly poor performance of other parties. If it seriously wants to lead Scotland towards a successful independent future - or, failing that, to strike the best possible deal in a post-Brexit Britain - then it will have to stop measuring itself by the poor standard of its opponents, and start developing a plan for a new society and economy that actually looks as if it has a sustainable future.

For that, it needs the kind of network of think-tanks, policy institutes and critical friends that still remains mysteriously absent in Scotland; and it needs constant pressure from the Scottish Green Party and other organisations that demand higher standards of consistent thought about Scotland’s future. The unionist demand that the SNP stop talking about independence altogether, following the 2014 referendum, is of course mere political grandstanding; no party founded on the ideal of independence could possibly do that.

Before Scotland approaches any second referendum, though, we need a period of steady, consistent thinking about exactly how such a move could become economically sustainable. And if the SNP does not promote and embrace that kind of process, then it will be forever vulnerable to the chance of one of the opposition parties finally getting its act together, and offering an alternative future that sounds both more robust, and more achievable. It’s not there yet - not in the confusion and division of the Corbyn Labour Party, not in the Tories’ ugly post-Brexit triumphalism, not even in the genuine pro-EU outrage of the slowly reviving Liberal Democrats. One day, though, it will appear; and if Nicola Sturgeon fails to ensure that the SNP is ready for that moment, her party’s period of dominance in Scottish politics could prove, by historic standards, to be very brief indeed.