Why the First Minister is happy to play the independence waiting game

Why the First Minister is happy to play the independence waiting game
The Herald, by Iain Macwhirter


Well, she got there in the end. Some of Nicola Sturgeon’s troops were getting a little restive at the lack of independence talk in her conference speech yesterday. About half way through, when she asked, rhetorically, “what kind of country we wanted to be”, someone shouted out, “an independent one”. But Ms Sturgeon was determined to paint a picture first of a fair and progressive country – a country which will leave no place for Labour. As with the rousing speech from the SNP MP Mhairi Black, the First Minister was out to kill Corbynism stone dead.


The headline offer on free childcare – approaching £1billion will be spent on this by the end of the parliament – was only the start. She promised a Scottish publicly-owned, not-for-profit energy company, which will sell energy at cost price. This will have put well-heeled lobbyists for Scottish Power and SSE into meltdown. The speech was a cornucopia of progressive policies, many already announced, like the 50,000 affordable houses, teacher grants, free sanitary products, baby boxes, council tax exemptions for care leavers, paying the settlement costs of EU nationals, even educating girls in Pakistan. Ms Sturgeon hates the narrow nationalist tag; she wants this to be the Scottish “Internationalist” Party. The bill will have to be paid through taxation, but there was no mention in the First Minister’s speech of tax increases or new tax bands.


However, most SNP members are motivated first of all by independence, not socialism, and they needed reassurance that the dream had not died when Ms Sturgeon shelved the second referendum in June. They cheered Angus Robertson, SNP deputy leader, who appeared to promise a referendum before the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021. But Ms Sturgeon refused to be specific. It’s all about having “clarity about what Brexit means” before she’ll fire the gun. The problem is that we may not be clear about Brexit for many years.


Ms Sturgeon doesn’t appear too concerned about this. Constructive ambiguity has served her well so far. By marching the indytroops up the hill and then down again, you might have thought the SNP leader had committed a fatal, unforced error. Imagine what would have happened to David Cameron if he’d announced the Brexit referendum and then shelved it a few months later. Yet Ms Sturgeon has survived with her authority undamaged, her leadership unchallenged and her party undivided.


Nor indeed, does the referendum u-turn seem to have damaged the SNP electorally. In the latest Yougov poll the SNP is still 17 per cent ahead of Labour with the Tories back in third place. That’s pretty remarkable for a party that has been in power for a decade. Ms Sturgeon’s personal popularity has taken a knock, but she is still relatively popular for a sitting leader.


Some in the SNP still believe a referendum could still happen on Ms Sturgeon’s original timetable: before the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. But most realise that this date with destiny has been missed. Even if she announces it in October 2018, which is the earliest date Ms Sturgeon will return to the question, there seems little prospect of getting a Section 30 order through Westminster, and arranging a referendum, in only six months – even if Theresa May (or whoever is PM) agrees to it. It took two years from the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012 before the 2014 independence referendum happened.


The former SNP MP George Kerevan says that the First Minister must, however, go before 2021, when her current mandate expires. This mandate refers to the vote in the Scottish Parliament in March that authorised the First Minister to seek a Section 30 Order for a referendum. “Use it or lose it” he said. If she waits until after 2021, she might lose her majority in Holyrood. Recent opinion polls suggest that this is highly likely.


However, if the SNP is in danger of losing its mandate in 2021, that might equally be a reason for not calling a referendum before then. If the SNP is losing popularity, a referendum is less likely to be successful, and Ms Sturgeon can’t afford to risk calling another abortive referendum. You can be sure that she will not even think about it until the opinion polls show a strong and stable majority for Yes among Scottish voters.


This might seem a counsel of despair, at least for independence supporters. It might look as if no time is right to put the question. But as we’ve seen, the SNP is a phlegmatic party – and it doesn’t mind waiting. It is no longer filled with romantic tartan hotheads, who lived on slogans like “Scotland free in 1993” and yearned for suicidal assaults on Westminster rule. The SNP is probably the most sophisticated political movement in Britain right now, following the huge learning experiences of the 2014 referendum and the 2016 Brexit vote. It realises that politics is about biding your time and looking for opportunities. It has avoided recrimination and back-biting even after the existential disappointment in June.


Brexit may have scunnered the Scottish voters and created a politics of confusion and uncertainty, but as Ms Sturgeon suggested, this could be to the Nationalists’ longer term advantage. The behaviour of the Brexit Tories is deepening the divide between Scotland and the rest of the UK. The Brexit vote shows the dangers of holding a referendum when the voters are not clear about what they are voting for, and if the country is divided and undecided about the options. Ms Sturgeon is a constitutional moderate and ultra-cautious about independence. She does not favour UDI, and has urged Catalonia and Madrid to follow the “shining example” of the Edinburgh Agreement and allow democracy to decide the national question there. There are no short cuts.


My suspicion is that Ms Sturgeon is relaxed about seeing the independence horizon stretch into the distance. She can get on with the job of governing Scotland, and acting as if Scotland is already an independent country. She wants Scots to believe that they are already living in a “better nation” and that things can only get better with self-government. Till then, well, why not fake it till you make it?