Increasingly, Scottish nationalists are peddling a dream they can’t deliver. Westminster won’t grant another politically binding vote on Scotland’s secession from the Union, Nicola Sturgeon has ruled out a unilateral declaration of independence, and the Supreme Court has just vetoed an advisory independence poll organized by Holyrood. With these pathways blocked, Sturgeon has pledged to turn the next UK general election into a de facto plebiscite on the break up of the British state. Yet the threshold she has set is improbably high: the SNP would have to win more than 50% of all votes cast in Scotland in order to secure a ‘mandate’ for separation – something the party didn’t achieve even in 2015, when the nationalists completed a near-perfect sweep of Scottish constituencies. Moreover, the unionist parties – Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – won’t fight the next election on the SNP’s terms. They will emphasize more pedestrian concerns (inflation, healthcare, the economy) in an effort to drown out the surrounding constitutional cacophony.
The narrowing of nationalism’s prospects casts doubt on Sturgeon’s future. Sturgeon was once seen as the great political saviour of the independence movement. If Alex Salmond, who led the SNP twice, from 1990 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2014, couldn’t deliver the goods, his successor surely would. Where Salmond was impulsive and divisive, Sturgeon was cautious and unifying. Where he imposed his chaotic ego on issues foreign and domestic, the onetime Holyrood Health Secretary had more strategic nous, crystallizing the party’s Europhile credentials in the wake of Brexit and consolidating its standing among Scotland’s middle-class Remainer majority. For a while, her approach seemed to be paying off. Sturgeon engineered the destruction of Scottish Labour seven years ago, before lifting support for independence to record-breaking highs. (One poll, published in October 2020, put the Yes vote at 58%).
Recently, however, with the SNP fifteen years in office and independence no closer than it was in September 2014, the semi-biblical belief in Sturgeon’s power has started to fade. More and more, the feeling among Yes campaigners is that independence, if it ever arrives, won’t be delivered by the current First Minister. At the same time, Sturgeon has herself begun hinting at a life beyond the Scottish Parliament, telling an audience at the Edinburgh Festival in August that ‘I don’t want to be the kind of politician that clings to office’.
The hope in 2014, when Sturgeon first assumed control of the SNP, was that she would iron out the inconsistencies in Salmond’s neoliberal vision of independence – which drew heavily on the Irish and Icelandic models of market deregulation – and build a more progressive model, rooted in the populist energy of the Yes campaign. In the early years of her leadership, Sturgeon’s main asset was a sprawling base of freshly politicized activists who called for an accelerated Scottish exit from the Union. The conditions were ripe for her to place these activists at the core of a broader Scottish revolt against Westminster, centred on Scotland’s opposition to Conservative austerity and English Euroscepticism. But instead, Sturgeon – who in many ways inherited Salmond’s triangulating instincts – saw the 2016 Brexit referendum as an opportunity to de-risk, or de-radicalize, Scottish nationalism. From then on, the SNP moved to the centre in pursuit of liberal Remainers; the Yes campaign began to splinter and dissipate (thanks in part to a controversy over trans rights); and the prospect of a second independence vote receded.
Now, if and when Sturgeon goes – the 2021 Holyrood election may have been her last – she will leave behind a threadbare political legacy marked as much by what she didn’t do as what she did. Early SNP pledges to scrap Council Tax and abolish student loan debt were ditched. In their place came a botched green industrial strategy, record drugs deaths and, potentially, in line with the latest SNP spending review, tens of thousands of public sector job cuts. In 2015, Sturgeon ostentatiously invited the Scottish media to ‘judge’ her on her record of eliminating the class attainment gap in Scottish schools. Nearly a decade later, that gap remains as vast as ever. (Exam pass rates among the poorest students in Scotland fell by 13% during the pandemic; they fell by 6% among the richest students over the same period.) As First Minister, Sturgeon could have capped skyrocketing rents and moved fast against fossil fuels. Instead, at every opportunity, she opted for a strategy of obfuscation and delay.
Her contortions over North Sea oil are a case in point. In 2018, the SNP appeared to concede that the era of petro-nationalism was over was by removing North Sea revenues from its fiscal projections for an independent state. But in her speech to the SNP’s annual conference on 10 October, Sturgeon abruptly repositioned oil at the centre of her vision for Scottish self-government. Tax receipts from remaining North Sea fields would be paid into an investment fund, she said, which would help kickstart Scotland’s economy during the early years of independence. The announcement eradicated what was left of Sturgeon’s meagre environmental credibility and reflected a ‘business-as-usual’ vision for independence.
Still, if Sturgeon failed to live up to her prophesied role, her successor is unlikely to fare much better. There is a striking paucity of talent on the nationalist benches at Holyrood. Critical voices have been muted by the stranglehold Sturgeon and her husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, hold over the party. Of potential heirs, only the Constitution Secretary Angus Robertson enjoys any real prominence in Scottish public life, and he vigorously denies any interest in the leadership. The other fledgling contenders are Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and Finance Secretary Kate Forbes. But the former is chiefly distinguished by his dogged loyalty to Sturgeon, while the latter is a spreadsheet bureaucrat with antiquated views on abortion and trans rights linked to her extreme evangelical upbringing. Under Yousaf, the SNP would continue to tread the current Sturgeonite path of centrist mediocrity; under Forbes, it would become a conduit for devolutionary austerity and social illiberalism. Given their professional proximity to Sturgeon, neither candidate would deviate from the SNP’s gradualist orthodoxy on independence, leaving the party locked in a seemingly permanent pattern of electoral and constitutional inertia.
Today, the biggest risk for Sturgeon is that she is simply sidelined by events. The shambles of the Tory government means that Labour could win an outright majority at the next UK election, which would limit the SNP’s ability to wrench a referendum deal out of a hung parliament in Westminster – the last-ditch hope of the SNP leadership as its prospects for independence are progressively diminished. Keir Starmer has commissioned Gordon Brown to produce a blueprint for British constitutional reform, which may recommend the abolition of the House of Lords and the creation of an elected ‘Senate of the Nations and Regions’ in its place. As part of a broader push to check the appeal of independence, Brown could also offer Edinburgh (alongside Cardiff and Belfast) a fresh slate of powers over social security and economic policy. Starmer may adopt all or none of Brown’s proposals. (When the putative contents of the report were leaked in September, Labour staffers immediately sought to dampen expectations.) But the idea of an enhanced devolutionary settlement bolted onto a reworked British constitution has already attracted praise from some unexpected quarters.
Writing in August, Stephen Noon – chief strategist for the Yes campaign during the first Scottish referendum in 2014 – argued that the SNP should temper its demand for secession in the event of an unfavourable Supreme Court ruling. The national question has become ‘too binary’, Noon said. Scotland needs a constitutional middle ground that grants Holyrood broader legislative freedom without inducing the pain of full-blown political divorce. ‘There is not as much of a gulf between independence and greater autonomy – what you might even call independence within the UK – as the polarized debate might lead us to believe’, he wrote. What emerges from Noon’s analysis is an alternative future for the SNP, in which the party embraces the ambiguity of Home Rule politics by bargaining for additional Scottish autonomy while simultaneously gesturing towards Scotland’s elusory national freedom – an ideal always just within reach but never materially realized.
Noon failed to explain how his confederal vision would resolve the embedded tensions – over Brexit and austerity, nuclear weapons, poverty and industrial decay – that drive demands for Scottish self-determination in the first place. Nonetheless, his call for compromise was revealing. The fact that a senior nationalist would publicly back ‘devo-max’ signals the impasse of the independentist movement. The SNP is making little effort to organize rank-and-file activists. Scottish civil society – one of the pivotal actors in the campaign for devolution thirty years ago – is stagnant. The only real sign of an offensive being mounted is a series of anaemic Scottish government discussion papers that raise more questions about the economics of independence than they answer. (The most recent of these – Building a New Scotland: A stronger economy with independence, published on 17 October – simply rehashed the corporate pabulum of Andrew Wilson’s discredited 2018 Sustainable Growth Commission report and committed the SNP to the temporary sterlingization of Scotland’s currency, until it becomes ‘practicable’ to establish a separate Scottish pound.)
Taken as a whole, Sturgeon’s political record is broad but shallow. Over the last ten years, support for Scottish independence has risen from 25% to around 50%. Scotland’s once immovable unionist majority has atrophied and is unlikely to recover. But Sturgeon’s decision to demobilize the Yes campaign after 2014 and channel its activist energies into her project of political management at Holyrood has left the SNP with minimal extra-parliamentary leverage. Following the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, each of the ‘legitimate’ routes to independence – an agreed referendum, an advisory referendum, a plebiscitary election – looks unrealistic. Sturgeon may or may not stick around much longer. But, for now, the country she runs is going nowhere.
Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘Challenge from the Peripheries’, NLR 135.