It’s not on SNP’s agenda, it’s not on Nicola’s agenda, but it’s sure as hell is on the general election debate agenda, because the three main UK party leaders put it there. By using the question of a second Scottish independence referendum as an expedient political football, they have managed to score three own goals -
1. They’ve triggered a UK-wide debate on the independence question, a question that was at best dormant as Scots focused on trying to make UK democracy work for them after the Nationalists after lost the 2014 referendum.
2. They’ve effectively questioned the democratic right of Scots to vote for the party of their choice in a UK election.
3. They’ve catalysed English nationalism, and highlighted the political differences between Scotland and England at the very time they should have been emphasising what unites them.
The 2014 Referendum
The SNP, while reiterating its over-arching objective of independence for Scotland, did not commit to a referendum in its 2007 manifesto. During the four year life of that minority government, despite repeated “bring it on” challenges from Wendy Alexander, Alex Salmond did not set a date for a referendum or call for one, concentrating instead on the high-wire act of running the country as a minority government.
But as the 2011 Holyrood election approached, the strategy changed, and the manifesto included this explicit commitment, if elected, to a referendum bill during the lifetime of the 2011-2016 Parliament, later specified as in the second half of the term.
Now, what determined this decision in go for it? Was it a great, popular demand from Scots for a second referendum? Was it a landslide victory in 2007 conferring legitimacy? Was it the outcome of a consultation exercise with the Scottish electorate?
None of these things. There was no YES campaign, no dynamic grassroots organisation of activists as yet. The 2007 win was narrow, and had shown the possibility of a nationalist government, a giant step in itself, but not a mandate for independence. The national conversation and consultation was in the future, and the great debate on the second question had yet to come. The will of the Scottish people, now much in the mouths of politicians, was anything but clear.
So the decision to go to the electorate with an explicit manifesto commitment to calling an independence referendum if elected was not driven by “the will of the Scottish people” but by a brave political calculation allied to a wish to make it clear to Scots that, if they voted SNP again. they were voting for a government that was committed to offering them a legal referendum and a democratic choice over Scotland’s future somewhere around late 2013 to mid-2014. (In the event it was September 2014.)
The landslide victory of 2011 on this manifesto could not be interpreted as a mandate for independence, but it undoubtedly was a mandate to offer the people a democratic choice.
On the face of it, therefore, a similar political calculation could be made in drawing up the 2016 manifesto, with considerably more justification – a huge membership, a powerful grassroots organisation and possibly an unprecedented number of MPs elected to Westminster, an outcome that for years unionists repeatedly accepted would be a definitive expression of the will of the Scottish people – because they thought it would never happen.
But Nicola Sturgeon, the most powerful and charismatic popular leader the SNP has ever had, now a national and international political figure, backed by a huge party membership, clearly has no such intent – and explicitly rejects the argument that a large bloc of SNP MPs returned to Westminster on May 8th would constitute an argument for independence or a mandate for a second referendum.
Why is this formidable and popular Nationalist politician adopting such a stance?
The answer lies squarely in the fact that there was a referendum in 2014 and we lost it. The Scottish electorate democratically rejected independence, and crying “We wuz robbed!” doesn’t alter that fact.
Nicola believed in 2014, Alex Salmond believed in 2014, (I believed in 2014!) most independence supporters believed in 2014 and most anti-independence supporters believed in 2014 that this was it – our one big chance for, if not a generation, for a helluva long time.
She recognises that, while nationalists feel a great sense of betrayal over the outcome of the referendum, given the sordid way in which the UK Government, the unionist media and Better Together conducted themselves during the campaign, Scots who voted for the Union – a majority – would feel a great sense of betrayal if they were asked to vote again on the question.
In that context, and the context that the independence movement has achieved more since losing the referendum than they did before it, I think Nicola and the SNP strategists have judged that the gradualism of the movement towards greater self-determination for Scotland is a safer bet than another throw of the dice.
Is she right? Are they right?
My answer is probably yes – and I trust her judgement absolutely over my own limited perspective as a voter.
But – and it’s a big but – I’m not sure that position can hold in the face of events changing at exponential speed: politicians do not control events – they respond dynamically to them.
Let’s get this election over, evaluate the outcome and the UK parties responses to it. Let’s give it a chance to work. Big things are at stake, big immediate issues, Trident renewal, austerity, the desperate need for investment to kick start the economy.
It’s a long, long way from May 2015 to May 2016. We have time on our side, and Nicola on our side. Let her play the ball – she has done it superbly so far, and her best days have still to come.
Vote SNP and put your faith in our party leader and Scotland’s First Minister to do the right thing –because doing the right thing is always the right thing to do!