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Monday, November 29, 2021

Sturgeon is stuck in a rut

When Nicola Sturgeon insisted this week that she was “going nowhere”, she probably imagined she was responding robustly to media speculation that she was about to hang up her claymore and retire to spend more time with her Val McDermid books.

Instead she has, quite neatly, encapsulated the current status of the pro-independence movement that she leads. A YouGov poll has suggested that opposition to independence among Scots is now more popular than independence by a six-point margin. Perhaps more interestingly, the First Minister’s personal popularity has plummeted by nearly 40 per cent since the height of the pandemic in August last year. Before her political opponents start measuring the curtains in Bute House (from a safe distance), they should consider that Sturgeon remains, far and away, the most popular (or the least unpopular) political leader in Scotland.

There are other nuggets of interest in the polling for close observers of the Scottish political scene, including an acceptance among voters that a second independence referendum should not be held unless and until support for independence is holding steady at at least 60 per cent. All of this is bad news indeed for the SNP whose strategists had assumed that unhappiness about Brexit among No voters would have provided an irresistible upsurge in support for independence.

Confirming Scotland’s reputation as a riddle inside an enigma wrapped in a saltire, is the continued unchallenged popularity of the SNP itself. Scots seem to have cooled on the Party’s defining mission, but they show no sign yet of wishing to dispense with Sturgeon’s leadership of Holyrood or of her Party’s dominance of Scottish Westminster seats.

Recent SNP history has been a story of dramatic victories followed by fallow periods of introspection. A narrow win at the Holyrood elections in 2007 was followed four years later by a nationalist landslide and a consequent independence referendum, during which Alex Salmond took support for independence from an anaemic 30 per cent to 45 per cent. Under Sturgeon, a few months later, the SNP took all but three of Scotland’s 56 Westminster seats at the 2015 general election, ending Scottish Labour’s dominance of Scottish politics. There have been two more general elections and two more Holyrood elections since, each one delivering eye-watering triumphs for nationalism, and each has been accompanied by rampant speculation as to when (not if) the rerun referendum will be held. 

That unbroken run of success and the excitement it generated for her activists has been crucial to Sturgeon’s continued domination of her movement and of Scottish politics. It is the periods between such triumphs when SNP members start to get impatient: they have spent their entire lives dreaming of freedom from Westminster. Their leader’s urging towards patience is making her troops feel. . .  well, impatient.

There are undoubtedly those in the independence movement who believe that a more robust approach – and even a new leader – would deliver independence on a shorter timescale than that envisaged by Sturgeon. That’s what the recent launch of the rival nationalist party Alba was all about. These people have little patience for the First Minister’s desire to repeat the formal process that delivered a legal referendum in 2014, one whose result would be respected on both sides of the border. Unless Boris Johnson’s government agree to another such transfer of authority to allow the Scottish Government to conduct another referendum, then that path is closed. Recent Supreme Court judgments suggest that their lordships are not keen to bend the terms of the Scotland Act to allow Holyrood to legislate on any matter that lies explicitly outside its competence.

Which leaves Sturgeon in an uncomfortable position of promising a new referendum by the end of 2023 even though she and her ministers know she has no power to deliver it. She is instead betting on persuading the UK government to come to her aid by accepting what she describes as her “unarguable” case for a rerun vote.

She is an intelligent woman and therefore must know that that isn’t going to happen. 

Sturgeon has accrued rave reviews for her handling of the Covid pandemic in Scotland and has even adroitly managed to avoid giving Johnson’s government any credit for the early approval and roll-out of the vaccine. If she is less popular today than she was last year, it may simply be that voters are now bored with the First Minister’s daily lectures on mask wearing and social distancing and yearn for a return to normal life, especially as Christmas approaches.

That being the case, and with a majority of Scots unconvinced about constant SNP assertions about mandates for another divisive referendum, the First Minister is taking a big risk with talk of an unofficial (illegal) referendum that, by definition, could be nothing more than an expensive publicity stunt with no legal standing. Are Scots really in the mood to restage the disastrous Catalan referendum? 

Given YouGov’s findings on mandates for a second referendum, not to mention Sturgeon’s popularity and support for independence itself, it is clear that if, as she insists, she’s going nowhere in the near future, her movement is accompanying her every step of the way.

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