Euan McColm: Frustration grows as Nicola Sturgeon urges one more heave for independence

Even among those loyal to Nicola Sturgeon there is frustration at her reliance on ‘one more heave, lads’ as difficult times draw nearer, writes Euan McColm

Nicola Sturgeon has been urged by Kenny MacAskill and other party colleagues to focus more on the domestic agenda. Picture: PA

Are you furiously angry about being denied your democratic rights? Do you seethe with rage over being trapped in the United Kingdom by a government hell-bent on keeping you down? Does your blood boil as your wish for Scottish independence is casually dismissed by people who care nothing for your hopes and dreams?

If your answer to any of these questions is no, then I regret to inform you that you are mistaken.

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The correct answer to all three questions is, of course, yes. We know this because First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues have told us so. Repeatedly. Relentlessly.

Since December’s general election, when the SNP won 80 per cent of Scotland’s Westminster seats, the party’s elected members have spoken of little other than their “mandate” to hold a second independence referendum, this year.

When MPs and MSPs haven’t been on television talking about the overwhelming public hunger for another vote on the future of the UK, they’ve been on marches – joyous if you like that sort of thing, tiresome if you’re trying to do some city centre shopping on a Saturday afternoon – and issuing a stream of press releases in which they shrilly make their case.

There are, I’m afraid, some problems with the claims currently being made on behalf of all Scots by members of the SNP, not least the fact that, although the Nationalists won a majority of seats in December’s election, the majority of Scots who turned out to vote backed parties that oppose independence.

Just a couple of days ago, the psephologist Sir John Curtice wrote a piece in which he suggested that inferring people’s attitudes to a single policy question on the basis of an election result was “always a highly dubious exercise”. He went on to cite polls conducted during the election campaign that showed support for a referendum within the next year was in the minority.

With all of this in mind, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to refuse the Scottish Government the right to call another independence referendum starts to look a lot less like the outrage described by nationalists and more like an example of him defending the wishes of a majority of Scots.

Our Conservative Prime Minister is not the only politician who believes Sturgeon is wrong to keep beating the independence drum. Perhaps surprisingly, there is scepticism about this approach within the SNP’s own ranks.

When newly elected MP Kenny MacAskill (in a previous life, an MSP and the Scottish Justice Secretary) said recently that he believed the First Minister should concentrate on policies other than independence, there was a fair bit of SNP spin that suggested he was a rather lonely figure. He was, went the story, not exactly a huge Sturgeon fan so his remarks should carry an appropriate health warning.

But I detect, among even those loyal to the First Minister, growing frustration over the SNP’s current approach to the constitutional question.

There are influential and committed Scottish nationalists who dearly wish that Sturgeon would, in the words of one, “press reset”.

Some of the FM’s colleagues make the point that, despite the party maintaining the line that support for independence has been on the up since defeat in the 2014 referendum, the truth is that it has not. An occasional poll may show a boost for the break-up of the UK but the majority show the nationalist movement stuck in the mud.

When Sturgeon succeeded Alex Salmond as SNP leader and First Minister in 2014, she promised to be a leader for all Scots, regardless of how they voted in the referendum. This was a promise she was soon to break. The surge in SNP membership and accompanying demands for a second referendum sooner rather than later placed considerable pressure on the FM to deliver what her followers desired.

It is certainly true that, despite the one-more-heave-lads rhetoric directed towards her supporters, she has failed to give them what they want but, at the same time, she has hardly made pro-Union Scots feel that she cares in the slightest about their wishes.

As one veteran campaigners puts it, Sturgeon was so determined to keep the faithful happy that she forgot about the wishes of the majority. It is, I think, difficult to argue against that.

So what would resetting the argument entail? Well, according to one of Sturgeon’s supporters, she should use uncertainty over Brexit not to try to force through a second, eminently losable, referendum but to announce the time is not right.

The argument goes that Sturgeon could quite plausibly say that the shape of the independence case will depend on the condition of the post-Brexit landscape. She could then refocus the attention of her ministers on the domestic agenda.

As one of her supporters puts it, the First Minister will struggle to win new converts to the cause while her political opponents can point to continuing failings in areas such as education and health. Those already persuaded of the case for independence may be satisfied by excuses about a lack of powers and the need for “levers” but sceptics see only a party putting the constitutional question before everything else.

The SNP faces tricky times in the near future. The trial of Alex Salmond, charged with a number of serious crimes, will – inevitably – raise difficult questions for a number of serving nationalist politicians.

This, say some SNP insiders, is one reason that the FM is talking obsessively about the constitution. She is, they say, trying to consolidate existing support in advance of difficult times.

I suppose this may be so but I’m unconvinced. From the outside, it looks like Sturgeon has run out of ideas. After more than a dozen years in government, the SNP looks tired.

There are many in the SNP who believe that the battle to break-up the UK must be relentless and unstinting. But there are those who think that, if this battle is to be won, it’s time to focus on a wider policy agenda and postpone talk of another referendum until a later date.