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Yesterday was a good day for the Union.
Sturgeon has lost control of her strategy and handed it to her own impatient activists.
Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin was a French revolutionary. His name is attached to a phrase that he almost certainly never uttered: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader." After yesterday’s statement on her referendum plans, those words could just as easily be attributed to our First Minister.
There are three reasons why Nicola Sturgeon should not have allowed herself to follow her people yesterday.
First: her haste is at odds with an electorate which is far more relaxed.
I’ve written before about the mañana voters who, even if they might be open-minded about leaving the UK, are in no hurry to be plunged back into animosity and aggravation of another referendum. Just a third of voters share Sturgeon’s view that this is a priority.
For once the UK government has set the frame for this conversation. By saying ‘not never but not now’ they expose the First Minister’s timescale as arbitrary and premature. They should resist the urge to play to their own unionist base in the days and weeks ahead. Reasonableness will expose the FM’s unreasonable plans.
The only reason for the urgency of her timing is that she wants to force a vote before there is the (increasingly likely) possibility of a change in government across the UK. She clearly fears losing her bogey man and her voters to an alternative vehicle for change.
She has made her plans for independence into a rush job.
Today, leaving the UK is a far more complex and challenging prospect than it was in 2014. Now the SNP need detailed plans for:
a new border to manage with our biggest trading partner that will cut across the supply chains that bring us most of what we consume.
operating for years as the only advanced economy in the world without a currency of our own and without a central bank; before establishing a new unproven currency which will have to be defended in international markets.
somehow managing the overnight loss of 1/7 of all public funding, while also running substantial surpluses to manage sterlingisation or to build up reserves to defend the new pound.
These are truly enormous tasks for any government.
We are supposed to believe that substantial plans can be cobbled together, by civil servants with limited experience in these policy areas, in the few months left before the referendum campaign would begin. By racing to try to beat her own politically enforced deadline, Sturgeon has ensured that her plans will be full of holes. She simply hasn’t left herself time to do her homework. They have learned nothing from their 2014 opponents exploiting the doubts raised in voters’ minds when they were unable to answer fundamental questions.
Raising the idea of forcing an exit from the UK without mutual consent is a huge mistake.
Sturgeon’s language on substituting the general election for a referendum was clearly meant to satisfy the unhappy SNP activists who have been asking what her plan B is when a court finds she can’t force a referendum.
The problem for her is that she wasn’t just talking to her true believers. The implied threat is now being reported to the general public:
For a party that worked so hard trying to de-risk leaving the UK, the idea of forcing an exit without a mutually agreed mandate makes the whole project feel much riskier. She sounded yesterday like a leader seeking to force a crisis, rather than calm the unconvinced.
Flirting with the idea of co-opting all SNP ballot papers as permissory notes for unilateral separation also risks alienating the significant proportion of SNP voters who either don’t support Scexit (around 1/5 SNP voters) or who don’t see what the rush is (even among SNP voters just a quarter list independence as among their top five priorities, and just 59% of SNP supporters are in favour of her expedited timescale).
You might think that a single-issue party fighting an election on the same single issue they have fought every election on since the Second World War isn’t much of a change. But the First Minister’s comments have raised expectations and she may now find herself trapped between what the Scottish National party wants and what the Scottish people want. While the country is still paying attention to this particular aspect of the story, opposing parties would be wise to exploit that tension.
Of course, the real response to all of this is that Nicola Sturgeon has no intention of holding a referendum. This was all theatre. But if we take her at her word that she’s really serious about this, yesterday was a disastrous moment in her leadership of the nationalist cause. Strong leadership means not telling your own base what it wants to hear so that you are more likely to deliver what they want to see. By allowing her followers to lead her, she has made independence significantly less likely to happen.
Dinna Fash Yersel
If only because it allows me to use that subheading, it’s worth summarising the weekend’s events at Bannockburn.
On Saturday Scottish nationalists gathered at the battlefield for their latest march and rally. The event started with the brandishing of swords by cosplayers urging the crowd to emulate Robert the Bruce.
It continued with the jaunty songs about English and Scots killing each other before Alyn Smith, the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesperson took to the stage to tell us he would “work with anyone…towards winning our country’s freedom.”
This is the problem the SNP have. To continue the theme developed above, they are unwilling to challenge their own base. The result has been that under Sturgeon’s leadership the SNP are once again attending events alongside groups that they has previously banned or shunned.
One such group is Siol nan Gaidheal, the fascistic group banned from the SNP decades ago who now provide the banners that SNP ministers march behind. Stirling MSP Evelyn Tweed posted a photo of herself waving their flag. She later said she had no idea that is what she was doing. Looking at the photograph it’s hard to see how she could have missed the Siol nan Gaidheal logos all around her, the men in medieval garb, the guys holding an axe and a sword.
There was a reason the SNP leadership had stopped attending these events. You cannot attend a political rally on a battlefield, where people wear T-shirts with medieval proclamations about not submitting to another ethnic group, where they burn flags, where they dress as warlords and brandish weapons without it being, well, more than a bit fash.
This incident should be the start of the SNP refusing to take part in events that involve members of fascistic groups. I suspect they are too weak to confront the ugliest parts of their movement.