The Debatable Land #23: Nicola Sturgeon concedes defeat (for now)
The first minister tells her supporters a truth they are not ready to hear
Welcome to the latest edition of my newsletter, The Debatable Land. There’ll be another edition arriving tomorrow but today’s is a single-issue affair. How could it be otherwise, since it concerns Nicola Sturgeon and her single-issue party? Thanks for reading and should you wish to receive more of these epistles you can subscribe here:
Reader, there is no need to save the date. For some time now, the talk in Scottish politics has centred on just how Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP can force a referendum on independence next year. Doing so would fulfil a manifesto promise made during last year’s Scottish parliament election but also, inconveniently, impose a referendum on a people currently stubbornly opposed to a plebiscite on the timetable favoured by the first minister.
Well, we have the answer now. There will be no referendum next year. This is not the message Sturgeon’s supporters wanted to hear and I fear she delivered it in too subtle a manner for many of them to appreciate just how thoroughly her promise has been abandoned. Nevertheless, that is the meaning of her statement at Holyrood yesterday. In place of Plan A, there is no Plan B.
Sturgeon insists secession must be lawful and - as a consequence of that - recognised by the international community. That means a referendum must have the consent of, in order of priority, the Scottish people and the British government. Neither branch of consent is available at present, though the second is contingent upon the first. The polling on this is very clear: no more than three in ten voters support a referendum next October. (By contrast, there is a soft majority in favour of the vague proposition there ought to be a referendum at some point in the next five or more years.)
Yesterday’s statement - you can read it here - was a retreat cloaked in the language of attack. The first minister accuses her opponents of “denying democracy” and frustrating “self-determination” but this might equally be said of her own position. She declines to accept that 2014 was an act of self-determination which must have some meaning; she denies the agency of voters then and it is she who implicitly argues the SNP has the unilateral right to ask the same question again and again until such time as a weary people give her the answer she desires.
For a pro-independence majority at Holyrood is a necessary condition for a referendum but not always a sufficient one. The first minister’s argument for a second referendum would be infinitely stronger had there not already been a first one.
True, matters have changed. Brexit is the stinking mistake which has reanimated an independence movement that would otherwise have had nowhere to go. The case for opposing another referendum is weaker than it would have been without Brexit.
Nevertheless, “Now is not the time” remains a valid argument and one, pertinently, that also puts sceptics on the side of public opinion. The SNP’s argument is that any pro-independence majority at Holyrood should trigger a referendum. This is a radical - and an exhausting - proposition.
Suppose there were a referendum next year and suppose Scotland voted for the status quo. Then suppose the next Holyrood election, in 2026, produces another pro-independence parliament. Should there be another referendum in 2028? Why not? If you accept this might be unreasonable you also accept that a pro-independence majority is not always, in all circumstances, sufficient reason for a referendum.
Meanwhile, the Scottish government has referred its own referendum bill to the Supreme Court which will judge its competence. It is difficult to see how the court can conclude that the bill does not impinge upon matters reserved to the British parliament. According to Sturgeon, this setback will be the “fault of the Westminster legislation, not the court”. This too is a radical argument for it posits that the British state should be denied an interest in its own dismemberment. I am not convinced this is a reasonable position.
Sturgeon is on firmer ground when she asks what the democratic route towards independence would be. A good question, but not one without an answer. For the legal route is as it was in 2014: when the British government agrees a referendum is reasonable.
I am confident that no government, not even one led by a mountebank such as Boris Johnson, would deny an agreed referendum if demand for it were clear, obvious, and overwhelming. (Mercifully, Boris Johnson may not be in the position of deciding these matters for very much longer.) Those conditions do not yet apply, no matter what meaning the first minister ascribes to election results.
Since the Supreme Court will surely rule against her government and since Sturgeon will not press ahead with a pretend or bogus or illegal referendum, talk of a referendum next October is so much hot air; lots of sound and fury signifying the square root of bugger all. As she put it:
Respect for the rule of law means that a referendum must be lawful. That, for me, is a matter of principle, but it is also a matter of practical reality. An unlawful referendum would not be deliverable. Even if it was, it would lack effect. The outcome would not be recognised by the international community. Bluntly, it would not lead to Scotland becoming independent.
Plan A sleeps with the dodos, then. And there is no Plan B.
We know this because the SNP have confirmed it themselves. Here’s what Sturgeon promises in lieu of a referendum:
Earlier, I said that two principles would guide what I said today: the rule of law, and democracy. Democracy demands that people must have their say. Finally, therefore, in terms of process, I confirm the following—although it describes a scenario that I hope does not arise. If it transpires that there is no lawful way for this Parliament to give the people of Scotland the choice of independence in a referendum, and if the UK Government continues to deny a section 30 order, my party will fight the UK general election on this single question: should Scotland be an independent country?
But what does this mean? What would “victory” look like? Would it be measured in terms of winning a majority of the votes cast in Scotland (a “de facto referendum”) or simply a majority of Scottish constituencies (a return to SNP policy in the days they never won elections). Tellingly, SNP figures have said “Yes” to each of these alternatives.
Last night, sources close to the leadership were talking about winning a majority of votes cast; on Radio Scotland this morning John Swinney, the deputy first minister, suggested a majority of seats (many of them won on a minority of the vote) would suffice. If this is the “plan” it needs work for it raises the prospect of precisely the kind of Unilateral Declaration of Independence the international community would be disinclined to recognise and, consequently, fail the first minister’s own tests of legality. Perhaps, though, there is no longer any difference between Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP and Alex Salmond’s Alba party.
[UPDATE: It is now suggested Swinney misspoke and meant a majority of votes. It is worth noting that the SNP won 49.97% of the vote in 2015 but a “mere” 45% in 2019. Regardless, this a dog which won’t hunt.]
Patience is no longer a nationalist strength. Sturgeon has marched her troops up and down the referendum mountain so many times even some of the cheapest-dates in political history are beginning to wonder if her promises of action are really credible. That is the consequence of failing to be honest with your own supporters.
Still, this is a long, long game. If the SNP keep winning elections - a probability as matters currently stand - then at some point the “Now is not the time” argument runs out of juice. That moment is not yet upon us but it takes little imagination to see how it could be pretty soon and certainly by the end of the decade.
Despite the claymore-rattling the real battle is not in the Supreme Court and not at the next British general election either. It will come in 2026 at the next Scottish parliamentary elections. An SNP (or SNP-Green) victory then, combined with the unavoidable passage of time, would make life awfully tricky for Unionists. We are not there yet, however.
There will be years more of this and it will continue until such time as the SNP lose an election or the people of Scotland make it clear they wish to decide their future all over again.
This is a period of phoney war but the thing about phoney wars is they end and are replaced by the real thing. There will be no referendum next year - you may be sure of that - but the rest of it is another matter entirely.
The Debatable Land is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Excellent piece - thank you Alex
"True, matters have changed. Brexit is the stinking mistake which has reanimated an independence movement that would otherwise have had nowhere to go. The case for opposing another referendum is weaker than it would have been without Brexit."
That is patently untrue, as, if it is not Brexit, they would be complaining about the kind of loo paper that is available in Westminster.
Anyway, saying that Brexit is a "stinking mistake" is the same argument that Sturgeon & Co. are putting forward in relation to the failed independent referendum: as the voters didn't get it right, let's give them another chance (and another, and another...)
In the Spectator you say that sooner or later this matter will have to be settled. Silly me, I thought it already had.