This article by Stuart Crawford, published here, does not mean endorsement of all content; it appears in the interests of widening debate on this important matter.
Another year, another promise of an independence referendum in Scotland remains unfulfilled. Despite increasingly desperate pledges to hold the next one in 2023, that forlorn hope – for independenistas at least – has melted away, to use the west of Scotland patois, “like snaw aff a dyke.”
The SNP may have returned the largest number of councillors in the May local authority elections, but this success has made not a whit of difference. Plus it has lost control of Edinburgh City Council to an unlikely alliance of Labour, Conservative, and Lib Dem councillors who now form the administration in our capital city. Who saw that one coming, eh? Certainly not tieless wunderkind Adam McVey, former leader of the Council, who has been put firmly back in his box by voters.
At Holyrood stasis reigns. The SNP has only managed, just, to hold onto power by virtue of another unholy alliance, in this case with the Greens. This latter group, a loose association of dreamers, schemers, and wired-to-the-moon beamers (who mentioned Ross Greer MSP?) now holds, unbelievably, two junior ministerial posts in the Scottish Government, in return for which they have proved all too eager to trade in any principles which they may once have held. Would Robin Harper have proved to be such a charlatan if he were still on the scene? I very much doubt it.
But, of course, the Greens are a pro-Scottish independence party, in the absence of any other credible policies of their own, and so they and the SNP are now bedfellows, albeit uncomfortable ones. Yet, despite their support, the Scottish independence movement in general and the SNP’s agenda in particular, has ground to a halt. When Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister seven years ago support for independence in the polls stood at 45%. Today it stands at … 45%.
After the defeat in the 2014 referendum it is generally accepted that the SNP looked to follow a softly-softly approach to persuading “the people of Scotland” (© John Swinney ad nauseam) that its competence in devolved government was such that the electorate need have no fears in voting for an independent Scottish state. Well, how has that strategy worked out, eh?
The party’s litany of failures in government is infamously extensive; Bi-Fab, Prestwick airport, Ferguson Marine, CalMac, the NHS, drug deaths, education down the pan, and, most recently it would seem, the nationalisation of ScotRail. On the plus side? The much trumpeted Baby Box, an idea stolen from Finland and of increasingly dubious utility. It would appear that the current incumbents of St Andrew’s House are not on even a nodding acquaintance with original thought.
It would all be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Never in the field of modern politics has so much been spent to such little avail by so few. We get the politicians we deserve, so I’m told, and all I can say is that we Scots must have done some truly awful things in a past life to end up with this lot. Their public sector, municipalist approach to governing demonstrates a paucity of intellect and savoir faire which would embarrass any local tennis club committee. And as for the idea that before distributing funds liberally to favoured causes and lobby groups it might be useful to try to create that wealth first, well, I don’t think they ever got that memo.
So, against this dismal background, what next? There are no serious intellectuals in the SNP or Greens, although there are some within the wider independence movement, Jim Sillars being one of the more obvious examples. The voters, in a classic demonstration of cognitive dissonance, will continue to vote for them but not in sufficient numbers to provide the consistent 60% majority to give them comfort that calling the next referendum will not merely be a futile gesture.
Even if that majority were to be achieved, a legally and constitutionally binding referendum requires a Section 30 Order from Westminster under the terms of the Scotland Act. Whilst the Conservative party boasts an 80 seat majority in the House of Commons any request from the Scottish government will be turned down. A “wildcat” referendum isn’t going to happen either; aside from the salutary lesson of Catalonia’s experience, with over half of Scotland’s local authorities now controlled by opposition parties or coalitions, these will likely just refuse to cooperate. So, it’s a non-starter, and the SNP and their Green partners are stuck.
The First Minister and her Cabinet colleagues are well aware of this, of course, and now appear to be looking around rather desperately to see what might break the impasse. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in a changing attitude towards NATO membership. With many gravitating historically to the SNP via the CND movement, including reportedly the First Minister herself, the party long held stance was firmly anti-NATO, on the grounds that it was “a nuclear-led alliance”.
It became increasingly obvious to the party hierarchy that this position was not electorally credible, and in a fiercely contested debate at the party conference in autumn of 2012 on the motion “an SNP Government will maintain (sic) NATO membership subject to an agreement that Scotland will not host nuclear weapons and NATO continues to respect the right of members to only take part in UN sanctioned operations”, its position was reversed.
However within the party opposition to nuclear weapons remained, which many observers saw as contradictory. How could an iScotland aspire to be a member of NATO and yet be against having nuclear weapons on its territory, presumably including weapons that might be carried on the visiting warships and aircraft of fellow members?
Here is where the language of SNP politicians has shifted markedly over the past few months and years. We have now progressed from removing the Trident-armed SSBNs from the Clyde “immediately” via removing them “as soon as it is safe and practical” to not hosting them “permanently”, as per the recent pronouncement from SNP defence spokesman Stewart McDonald MSP. And no clear position has been declared on visiting warships and aircraft from NATO allies. Not yet anyway.
Even the youth wing of the SNP, Young Scots for Independence (YSI), reversed its position and gave its “full support” for an independent Scotland joining NATO after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The truth is that the SNP has at long last woken up to recognise that the presence of the UK’s nuclear deterrent on the Clyde will be their biggest bargaining chip if and when it comes to post-independence negotiations. What took them so long?
Add to this the First Minister’s declaration on her recent visit to the USA that NATO membership would be “essential” for an iScotland and we can see how far the pendulum has swung. This was prompted, at least in part, by the war in Ukraine and the new desire of Finland and Sweden – both countries part of the SNP’s pathological admiration for all things Nordic/Scandinavian – to join the Alliance after decades of resistance to the idea. Needs must, I guess, when the security situation in Europe has changed so dramatically.
Finally, for our purposes here at least, we should mention in passing the SNP’s position on the monarchy. The independence movement as a whole has strong roots in republicanism, and this also permeates the SNP membership. They may have been mildly surprised by Nicola Sturgeon’s warm words about HM The Queen on the occasion of her Platinum Jubilee, or indeed her statement that the Queen would continue to be head of state in an iScotland. This is a clear attempt to appeal more to middle Scotland, the electoral demographic which the SNP has so far failed to convince and whose support it needs if the independence agenda is to be delivered.
So this is where matters lie at the moment. The SNP and the Scottish independence movement are currently stuck in No Man’s Land, not strong enough to progress further but too proud to retreat to their own lines. To break the stalemate they are now searching for a Wunderwaffe to break the deadline, hence the new appraisal of NATO membership and the monarchy amongst others. However, the future looks bleak for independenistas; there is now no time to stage an independence referendum in 2023, and with the prospect of a UK election before 2025 and the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2026, any window of opportunity to hold one is hard to see.
Meanwhile the rumbles of discontent get louder amongst the grassroots of the movement. How much longer before voters accept that the SNP is failing in government and has failed in its primary objective and move their support, and votes, elsewhere?
© Stuart Crawford 2022
Stuart Crawford is a political commentator, retired Lt. Colonel and former SNP defence spokesman. He is now a member of the Liberal Democrat party and stood for East Lothian Council in the May 2022 elections.