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Waiting is not Winning
New polls expose the challenge faced by the SNP. Last night's Sky News debate was a last chance for candidates to engage with political reality. They chose fantasy.
How do you judge the success of a leadership campaign? Who ends up with the most votes from party members is only one part of it. Some leadership campaigns win the country but lose the party. Others win the internal contest but lose the wider electorate they need the day after becoming leader.
The best leaders are able to indulge the dreams of their supporters while also challenging them with a plan that addresses hard political realities. As ballots land in the SNP leadership where do things stand?
Two polls yesterday present the political reality that the next SNP leader will face. Survation found that support for leaving the UK stands exactly where it was in 2014 while YouGov found that the nationalist cause has advanced a solitary percentage point since then.
YouGov also asked whether Scots thought that we would still be part of the UK in ten years’ time. 52% thought we would still be in the UK. Just 30% believe we will leave within a decade. Another poll by Redfield and Wilton asked people who they thought would win if a referendum was held in next six months. Again, just 30% believed we would vote to leave the UK.
It’s not just that people aren’t buying independence, they don’t believe that anyone else will.
Despite all of this, front runner Humza Yousaf has spent the last few days telling his party that Scotland’s exit from the UK is inevitable. This section from last night’s debate demonstrated just how reluctant the SNP’s leaders are to tell their members the truth: their movement has stalled:
Yousaf might think that he can stop indulging the fantasies of his members once he no longer needs their votes. The problem is that if you campaign as a fundamentalist but lead as a gradualist you only make it more difficult to do what is necessary. Nicola Sturgeon in much more politically favourable circumstances, and as a much more capable leader than Yousaf, could not withstand the pressure of impatient nationalists. How can he hope to when he isn’t willing to challenge them? Alex Massie wrote an excellent piece in the Times on this:
“Yousaf is already repeating Sturgeon’s mistakes. You cannot let the party down gently. Disappointment must be doled out like hard truths: bluntly, brutally, and so clearly that even those who do not wish to hear them cannot actually avoid doing so. Trying to have it both ways is cute but unsustainable. You can’t simultaneously whisper about gradualism and shout about fundamentalism but this, in essence, is what Yousaf is trying to do.”
One person who is willing to tell hard truths to SNP members is Minister Ben MacPherson who wrote in the Scotsman that, similar to nationalists in Quebec, the SNP should accept that independence isn’t coming any time soon and should work to make devolution work. He bases this not on an analysis of public opinion, but rather on the workability of creating a separate state:
“Many in the population, including in the independence movement, reasonably question if Scotland is ready, yet, to transition to full statehood. I’m not afraid to admit that such honest and important concerns have some justification. The fact is – and facts matter – Scotland doesn’t yet have all the necessary 21st century state infrastructure to quickly transition to a successful, modern independent country in the short-to-medium-term.”
However, even this lone voice within the SNP still bases his argument on the belief in the inevitability of the dissolution of the Union:
“Many people in Scotland want some form of more independence and the demographic polling trends suggest this desire is only going to increase.”
Here’s the fundamental problem with this complacent strategy: around half a million older voters have died since 2014 but the polls haven’t moved.
On the basis that two-thirds of the oldest voters chose to remain in the UK, Chronos should already have handed nationalism a commanding lead. Just think about the implications of that.
That the polls show that nothing much has changed since 2014 makes the the story of the resilience of the Union all the more remarkable. If we approach strategic thinking like the SNP’s leaders, then the No side has managed to convert huge numbers of Yes voters into No voters in the middle of a series of political and economic crises in the UK.
It isn’t that the nationalist cause hasn’t moved forward. While they have had their feet up, waiting to win, they have been losing hundreds of thousands of voters.
If only someone was brave enough to tell SNP members that.
Beneath this unshakeable belief in their eventual victory is an arrogance. They cannot believe that there can ever be an alternative route to change. They take for granted that the voters have gifted them limitless time in office. They think they are immune to the normal laws of political incumbency.
These are dangerous fantasies to hold onto when a mood for change grips the voters.
One consequence of the SNP’s failed inevitability strategy is that they have shown no interest in dealing with the big unanswered questions that create doubts over whether leaving the UK is a good idea. Ash Regan was grilled last night on her claim that she could establish a separate currency within a few weeks.
I had the same reaction watching this as when Kathy Bates took out her sledgehammer in Misery.
It is easy to mock Regan for this but really the failure here is Nicola Sturgeon’s. It is nearly a decade since their campaign was fatally undermined by their inability to talk credibly about currency. The complacency and laziness of the existing SNP leadership means that the next generation of leaders inherit a case that is no further forward.
BTW, Yousaf claiming later in that section that Ireland’s use of Sterlingisation a hundred years ago, as an undeveloped agrarian economy, could be a model for Scotland was more ridiculous than anything Regan said.
Culture Corner: A Change is Gonna Come
Over the last few weeks it has felt like the ice is slowly thawing and real political choices in Scotland might emerge from the cold.
In the words of Sam Cooke, it’s been a long time coming. Here’s my favourite cover of that song by Cold War Kids: