Nicola Sturgeon is in trouble. Some will choose not to believe it when I say this, but I take no pleasure whatever in saying that the peg on which Nicola’s jaikit hangs is starting to look a bit shoogly. Contrary to the views of many Sturgeon/SNP loyalists and the brain-dead #WheeshtForIndy mob, I have never been ‘anti-Sturgeon’. I have never called for her to resign. I have never said she should be replaced. In fact, I have frequently chastised those who do say she should go. In part, this is because I still have a great deal of admiration for Nicola Sturgeon. She is, as all but her most virulent detractors will concede, an accomplished communicator. She performs well in debates and shines at the weekly FMQ slapstick. I think she has been a very good ─ at times excellent ─ First Minister. But as de facto leader of the independence movement, she has been a ghastly failure.
Whatever Nicola Sturgeon had hoped would ensue from publication of the UK Supreme Court (UKSC) judgement last Wednesday, she probably didn’t anticipate that it would lead to serious and widespread questioning of her own judgement in referring the draft Referendum Bill to the UKSC. But that is what has happened. And, as in the proverbial floodgate being opened, questioning of her judgement in this instance has led to ‘re-examination’ of her record ─ particularly on the constitutional issue. That must have been the last thing she wanted. Because, as I have noted on numerous occasions, that record does not stand up well to scrutiny. To date, Sturgeon has managed to avoid that kind of scrutiny from within the Yes movement.
She has always had her critics within the independence movement. In fact, I came quite late to that game having been among Sturgeon’s stauncher defenders. We’ve all got to wake up some time. A lot of people seem to be rousing simultaneously. There’s a tipping point at which the rational, constructive criticism descends into raw attacks. When there’s blood in the water, a feeding frenzy inevitably follows. Nicola Sturgeon has been badly grazed by the whole UKSC referral business. There may not be actual blood in the water yet, but the scent is there and is being picked up.
The extent of this fresh scrutiny/criticism of Nicola Sturgeon was brought home to me yesterday, when I attended the All Under One Banner (AUOB) march and rally in Glasgow. Given the short-notice and last-minute changes to the departure point and route, not to mention the atrocious weather conditions, the event was surprisingly well attended. We marched from Glasgow Green along the river to rally at Pacific Quay, outside the BBC Scotland HQ where a sizeable crowd listened to a series of speakers drawn from across the Yes movement ─ except the SNP. I think every one of those speakers was openly critical of Nicola Sturgeon. It was the focus of my own address. I had anticipated that my remarks would not be well-received. I was wrong.
The fact that so many different speakers were voicing their dissatisfaction with Sturgeon’s ‘leadership’ of Scotland’s cause, and that so many people approached me afterwards to say how much they agreed with what I’d said ─ often adding their own criticism ─ made me realise that her relative immunity from scrutiny has come to an end. Robin McAlpine has penned a blog article which effectively summarises most of the criticism. I don’t agree with him on every point. But the gist of what he says reflects the mood I picked up on at the AUOB event.
Already, some of the characteristics of the feeding frenzy are in evidence. Some angry folk go straight from ‘she’s got things wrong’ to ‘she has to go’ without passing ‘think’. Personally, I like my porridge hot and my politics cold. Not that there isn’t room for passion in politics. But some parts of our politics are better kept as free of emotion as may be possible. We really have to stop and consider the potential implications of Nicola Sturgeon’s removal. But first, we have to think about whether it is actually possible to remove her if she doesn’t want to go. I really don’t see how it could be done. There would have to be a very evident mass outcry against the First Minister for her to even consider resigning. I don’t want that. I fear there would be a lot of collateral damage.
There are calls for Nicola Sturgeon to quit. Angus MacNeil MP is among those urging that Nicola Sturgeon should resign and the SNP/SGP block the election of another First Minister in order to force an extraordinary Scottish Parliament election which would be made a plebiscite. The British parties and the British media would obviously like to be able take such a big political scalp. If there must be a ‘de facto’ referendum, then it is undoubtedly better that it be a Scottish election. But I remain more than dubious about the whole idea. As ever, I ask “What next?”.
The process is messy and disruptive. The First Minister resigning followed by up to four weeks of attempts to fill the role, then the closest thing to a snap election as we can get in Scotland, all involves a great deal of upheaval. Add the inevitable negative spin of the British media and the theatrical outrage of British politicians and we could be looking at a thoroughly disgruntled electorate. Which isn’t what you want if you are hoping for a good turnout.
Against all this upheaval and public bad humour must be weighed the realistically anticipated gain from a plebiscitary election. Could it achieve enough to make it worth the trouble? Personally, I doubt it. I am firmly persuaded that the next democratic event addressing the constitutional issue must be the final such event. It must be decisive. It must be conclusive. It must settle the matter beyond question. A plebiscitary election can never satisfy these criteria. It would all but certainly be a de facto referendum about having an actual referendum which itself might be inconclusive if it followed the pattern of the referendum formerly proposed for next year but now ruled out by the UKSC. Because they were asked to rule it out by the Scottish Government that was proposing the referendum. No! I don’t get it either!
As well as the long-overdue willingness to scrutinise Nicola Sturgeon’s whole approach to the constitutional issue, I sense increasing awareness of the urgency of getting Scotland out of the Union. As yet, not enough people realise just how urgent is our need to restore Scotland’s independence. It may not be quite a case of now or never. But it is certainly a case of now or never in a long time and with much greater difficulty. Looking at the situation rationally, it seems beyond question that the British state will seek to put further impediments in the way of the people of Scotland exercising our right of self-determination. They want the ‘Scottish problem’ solve once and for all ─ and to their satisfaction. Which means they want to lock Scotland into the Union ever more tightly. This, they can do. The Union gives the British ruling elite the power to do pretty much as it will with Scotland.
In such situations, it is wise to proceed on the basis of something approaching the worst case scenario. That would be a unilateral change to the British constitution which would create a new ‘Great Britain’ constitutionally defined as indivisible and indissoluble. Very much like the constitution which binds Catalonia to Spain. I expect the Union and it’s preservation to loom large in the next UK general election ─ which will be held no later than autumn 2024, and quite possibly as early as spring 2023 ─ although this does not seem likely. Whenever that election takes place and whatever the outcome, the next UK government is likely to be committed to a more or less Draconian solution to the ‘Scottish problem’. All of which means that bold, decisive action to escape the fate of being irrevocably(?) locked into the Union is needed now!
In turn, this means that bold, decisive action must be taken by the First Minister and Scottish Government that we have right now. It is difficult to say with any certainty what kind of time-frame would be required for the process envisaged by Angus MacNeil. Probably not less than 9 months and maybe as much as 18 months. During which time the British government might easily frustrate the process by calling a UK election.
We should not be in this perilous position. That we are is entirely down to the near-total lack of strategic thinking in the SNP and the bad choices made by Nicola Sturgeon. But while it is essential that there be adequate scrutiny of the party of government and that the findings be conveyed to the people, it would be foolish in the extreme to linger long in the blame game. We have to be able to move beyond the past failures of the SNP/Scottish Government. Once we’ve correctly understood where we are and how we got here, it is time to focus on where we want to go and how to get there.
As we consider how to move on from the SNP/Scottish Government’s mistakes we have to accept that however we decide to compensate for and rectify those ‘missteps’, the SNP is going to be part of the ‘solution’. It cannot be otherwise. Being realistic, no other party is going to be the party of government within the time-frame available to us. Even if an extraordinary Scottish Parliamentary election is contrived and called as a plebiscite, it is more than likely that the most effective voting strategy for the purposes of Scotland’s cause will be voting en masse for the SNP. What we would be seeking to create in this plebiscitary election is a ‘supermandate’ for the party of government. Only the SNP is in a position to be the party of government. Votes for other pro-independence parties could inly undermine that ‘supermandate’. We could argue about how badly the ‘supermandate’ would be undermined. But nobody could sensibly argue that reducing the vote for the party of government wouldn’t reduce the clout it could wield.
Talk of votes for all pro-independence parties counting as ‘Yes votes’ in a plebiscitary election is all very well in principle. In practice, a vote for the party of government will carry more weight than a vote for, say, Alba. That is basic political realism.
The SNP is the only realistic candidate to be the party of government. Just get used to that fact, because there is no credible prospect of it changing any time soon. Whether or not Nicola Sturgeon will be the candidate for First Minister is a different question. Part of me hopes she is. But I fear Nicola has a lot of work to do if she’s to convince the Yes movement that she can be an effective leader of Scotland’s cause. There’s blood in the water. She may well have succumbed to the feeding frenzy by that time.
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