I see at least two problems with what Nicola Sturgeon is saying on the subject of a referendum. Firstly, what she is not-quite-promising is inadequate. Secondly, too many people simply don’t believe her not-quite-promises anymore. At a media briefing yesterday Sturgeon was asked if she would press on with legislation to hold a Holyrood-backed referendum if the British Prime Minister snubbed her request for a Section 30 order. She said she would. But that commitment was subject to so many loose conditions as to make it utterly meaningless. It amounts to her saying that a referendum will maybe happen before the end of 2023 unless it doesn’t in which case it might happen after 2023 it all depends on things that I can’t define right now.
I have often said that we need our First Minister to take an approach to the constitutional issue which is bold, decisive, determined and imaginative. Nicola Sturgeon’s approach is none of these things. She is not prepared to step outside the lines drawn by the British state to protect their ‘precious’ Union. She lacks the tenacity to hold to a position against challenges from what she clearly regards as a higher authority. She has not had any fresh thinking on the constitutional issue since taking office. And her own words, despite the bravado of the presentation, betray a reluctance to make firm decisions.
Some will reject these accusations out of hand. They may even cite evidence that ‘proves’ how wrong my assessment is. But this only demonstrates the curious contradictions in Nicola Sturgeon’s style. Nobody should deny that she has skills. The greatest of these being her presentational abilities. She is always in control. And always the pawn of life’s vagaries. She is always strong. And always vulnerable. She is always unyielding. And always ready to compromise. She is always assertive. And always ambivalent. She’s a great listener. And she has no interest in what you’re saying because she knows she’ll always have an answer. She can act any part at any time. Which is a great skill for any politician to have. They can be all things to all people. And since they all have a vote, that may be the only skill they require.
Unfortunately for such a politician, this skill does not age well. The more it is relied on, the more people begin to notice the absence of anything else. The longer it is deployed, the less convincing the performances become because the audience has seen it all before. Nicola Sturgeon has been on stage for 14 years.
Returning to the constitutional issue specifically, there is another problem with the ambiguity and vacillation and timidity in Sturgeon’s approach. It makes things too easy for those who would challenge her. The less bold, decisive, determined and imaginative she is, the less bold, decisive, determined and imaginative they have to be in order to appear more bold, decisive, determined and imaginative. Look at Alex Salmond, for example.
It’s easy for a politician as skilled as Alex Salmond to look the part when he’s being compared to Nicola Sturgeon. It’s a simple matter for him to appear – and be portrayed as – the bold, decisive, determined and imaginative leader that Scotland’s cause craves. Being a rebel in the company of those who have no capacity for rebelliousness takes little effort. So it is that Alex Salmond can be presented as the radical independentista when in reality there is very little that’s radical about his approach to the constitutional issue. In fact, he’s so good at it that he’s even convinced many in his own Alba Party. Whatever he says, his more ardent supporters hear the voice of Wallace reborn. Or at least a worthy successor. He ain’t all that!
Nicola Sturgeon has set her sights so low that pretty much any offer Salmond makes is going to look better. And, being the crafty politician that he undoubtedly is, he not-quite-promises no more than he has to. No more than will seem a prize next to the not-quite-promises Sturgeon is putting on the table. Sadly for Scotland, neither of them is offering what we need at this time of our nation’s great peril.
We are the people. We get to set our sights as high as we want and that is the vision with which our would-be political leaders must compete. Try this little experiment, if you will. As you consider how to vote in the coming election; as you think about the outcome you want, don’t compare the offer being made by one politician with the offer being made by another. Compare both their offers to your own aspirations for Scotland. Ask yourself if either is adequate. Then ask yourself whether you are prepared to settle for less than you have a right to demand.