There is no vacancy. There is no appetite within the SNP for a leadership contest. Discounting hard-line Unionists, there is little if any demand in the country for a different First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon has proved herself to be a competent and very popular party leader. It is hard to imagine anyone might be a better ambassador for Scotland in Europe and across the world. At home, she has shown herself to be highly proficient at handling the media and adept at explaining, promoting and defending her government’s policies and positions. All round, Nicola Sturgeon scores nines and tens across the board. Yet she may have to go. She may have to step aside due to a problem of her own making.
Angus MacNeil identifies the problem. When Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy for pursuing independence “hit the brick wall” she has nowhere to turn. She is so wedded to the Section 30 process that she has effectively ruled out all other options. She has no Plan B because she hasn’t left space for an alternative approach to the constitutional issue. An issue of such crucial importance to the party and the nation that failure in this area must outweigh all those high scores in other aspects of her roles as party leader and First Minister. It is in her third role as de facto leader of the independence movement that her performance has disappointed many – and continues to cause frustration and not a little anger among those who are otherwise totally supportive of Nicola Sturgeon.
What Angus doesn’t say; what he could hardly be expected to say, is that Section 30 process has already hit a brick wall. It was always going to do so. Any process which is crucially dependent on the honest and willing cooperation of the UK Government is bound to fail. And it has. Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy for getting independence is, in fact, part of the British political elite’s strategy for preserving the Union. The Section 30 process maintains the illusion of a democratic route to independence while keeping the British state firmly in charge of access to that route.
Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy has not only hit a brick wall but a brick wall at the end of a very narrow bind alley. There is no room to turn because the British state has erected an impenetrable barrier to progress. Thre is no room to turn because the walls on either side are hemming her in. She can hardly complain since she helped build those walls. She has no choice but to go into reverse. And she won’t want to do that.
Going into reverse would mean abandon the Section 30 process altogether. Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to that process is so dogmatic that she has effectively staked her career on it. Politically, a U-turn on her approach to the constitutional issue would be an admission of failure such as might end a political career.
Apart from a handful of thoughtless individuals, nobody in the Yes movement is calling for Nicola Sturgeon’s head. But increasing numbers are demanding a change of approach to the constitutional issue. A clamour is growing for the Section 30 process to be ditched. It is certain that, if the project to restore Scotland’s independence is to proceed it must be by some route other than that to which Nicola Sturgeon has committed. She cannot unmake that commitment. She can’t reverse back to the blind alley’s entrance and drive off in another direction. The damage has been done. She did it. Relying on the goodwill, good grace and good faith of the British establishment was a mistake. A massive mistake.
With no ill-will whatever, and regardless of the protestations of her friends and allies, it looks very much as if Nicola Sturgeon will have to go. The only thing that might make this unnecessary – for the time being, at least – would be if Boris Johnson were to oblige her with a Section 30 order. This would not end the problem for Nicola Sturgeon, however. Grant of permission to hold a referendum would not demolish that brick wall. It would merely knock a hole in it just big enough for Nicola Sturgeon to crawl through. The wall will be rebuilt behind her and the apparently open and clear democratic route to independence will turn out to be littered with traps and landmines making it every bit as impassable as it had previously been.
What chance is there of the British Prime Minister relenting? How likely is it that he would act to save Nicola Sturgeon’s neck? How remote is the possibility that Boris Johnson would be allowed to initiate a process which puts the Union in jeopardy absent an absolute guarantee that the process could be blocked further down the way?
It is this, and not difficulties over any of her policies or ‘scandal’ involving her predecessor, that will force Nicola Sturgeon to quit. She might do the U-turn and hope she can ride out the ensuing storm. But the best option to secure her future career and preserve her political heritage, not to mention keeping her reputation and dignity relatively intact, is to step aside with dignity in order that the independence campaign can move forward.
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