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Thinking Small and Acting Big
Nicola Sturgeon's new strategy is about excusing her lack of progress as she prepares to exit the political stage. Some nationalists realise that, but not enough to stop her.
I wrote an essay for the Scottish Mail this morning arguing that the real purpose of the First Minister’s decision to ask the Supreme Court to confirm the bleeding obvious was not to attempt to win a referendum but rather to create an excuse for the lack of progress under her leadership.
You can read the whole thing here, but these were the key passages:
Sturgeon is trying to convince her supporters – and perhaps even herself – that it is the government in London rather than the people of Scotland who are standing in the way of her dream.
If she was in a stronger position she would level with her activists and tell them the truth: voters are sick of chaos, they can’t stomach a change in currency, they baulk at the idea of a hard border with England, and they won’t swallow the austerity that independence implies.
If she was at the start of her leadership she might well find the courage to take the long view and work patiently to persuade voters. But Sturgeon is nearer the end than the beginning. Her aim isn’t to create a new political reality, or to create a new nation, it is to tell a story that excuses her own failure as a political leader.
The worse thing for the nationalist is that to secure an exit narrative for herself she is risking the future of the whole cause:
At every past election, Sturgeon has been able to reassure sceptical voters that ‘a vote for the SNP is not a vote for independence’. Now she proclaims the opposite: if you vote for us at this election, Scotland will leave the UK. Words of reassurance have been replaced by an invitation to a risky roll of the dice.
Such an analysis from me is unsurprising, what is notable this morning is how much criticism there has been from within the normally compliant nationalist movement. More thoughtful nationalists are realising that the rush to try to resolve the referendum issue is about Nicola Sturgeon’s timetable for leaving politics, rather than what is best for their cause.
Neil McKay in the Herald told the uncomfortable truth to other supporters of leaving the UK.
“the court finding just underscored what most considered Yes voters know: Nicola Sturgeon’s constitutional strategy is a joke. It exists only to continually throw red meat to her base, and act as a constant shield protecting her government from any criticism over its failures on multiple fronts: the NHS, schools and policing.”
Robin McAlpine, whom I won’t make a habit of quoting, has a similar assessment of the lack of progress made under Sturgeon’s leadership. He at least recognises the strategic error of fighting a change General Election which will be about electing a new government as an opportunity to continue an old argument:
“like it or not the reckoning is here for all of us. Because she is asking us to place our trust in her one more time. She tells us that she is going to ‘turn the General Election into a de facto referendum’. Should we follow her one more time? Should we hide our doubts behind saltires and forced grins one more time?
I urge you to recognise that would be a mistake. I encourage you to be aware that this too is a delaying move not a strategy. We already know they haven’t worked out what a ‘de facto referendum’ is (they’re having a conference to decide) and that is an unmistakeable sign that this isn’t clear, thought-through strategy.
In reality they’re making this up as they go along and crossing their fingers that it doesn’t turn out to be mad. It is much, much harder to turn an election into a single-issue ‘plebiscite’ than you might think. Can we overcome a franchise which cuts out a lot of our most supportive demographic groups? Can we shift polls more in a six-week campaign than we have in ten years?”
Meanwhile, SNP MP Stewart McDonald seems to be one of the few who understands that Sturgeon’s strategy risks alienating undecided voters. Or at least one of the few who is willing to challenge the FM publicly:
Speaking off the record other senior figures in the SNP seem to agree with this analysis. One told the Times:
“What the Scotland Act can and can’t do is first year of law at uni. Then to turn that into ‘the whole system is undemocratic’ — it’s not true. That’s what the law says. They really are just clutching at straws and hoping that the mentals go to these pointless rallies. Honestly, what did that achieve?”
Noting the crowd the First Minister addressed outside of the Scottish Parliament contained supporters of groups on the fringe of nationalism, another source close to the First Minister told the same paper there were “probably more zoomers in that crowd than normal people”
Rather than appealing to those “zoomers”, Anas Sarwar noted the political violence we have seen in the UK in recent years and urged the First Minister to be more responsible with her language:
“From the language the first minister has been using, it has to be repeated that where she talked of being a prisoner, locked into a unitary union, the Supreme Court made it clear we’re not a colony, we’re not oppressed, we do have democratic roots and structures. This indicates a first minister who is appealing to her base rather than pulling our country together.”
As if to confirm his fears that the debate is becoming even more unhealthy, nationalists today marched on the BBC headquarters, yet again. Swap the saltires for the stars-and-stripes, and the blue bonnets for red baseball caps and this could be a MAGA rally.
It seems obvious that the ‘de facto referendum’ approach is lose-lose for nationalists. If the SNP manage to convince half of the electorate to vote for them, it won’t be recognised by the UK government as a mandate to leave. If they cannot reach that threshold, Sturgeon will have set a test and failed it, burying their cause for a generation.
Fortunately for supporters of remaining in the UK, most nationalists will be immune to such self-criticism and will follow the leader unquestioningly. They’re too addicted to the idea of conflict with the rest of the UK to stop and think. Unfortunately for all of us, even as she fails the First Minister’s irresponsible language will further poison our already polarised politics.
Culture Corner: The Ballad of the Shrieking Man
The title of this post comes from one of my favourite poems by James Fenton, The Ballad of The Shrieking Man. This section has come to mind a lot watching politicians over the last few years. It succinctly explains a lot of the problems in our world.
The fault of thinking small and acting big
Have primed the bomb and pulled the pin
And we're all together when the roof falls in!
You might have seen the awful scenes in Xinjiang as Uyghurs locked into their apartment buildings by the Chinese State, supposedly to contain covid, were burned alive. That brought to mind another poem from that same collection:
Tiananmen Is broad and clean
And you can't tell
Where the dead have been
And you can't tell
When they'll come again.
They'll come again To Tiananmen.