How much longer can Nicola Sturgeon keep stringing along independence-supporters?

The Programme for Government, an annual statement from the First Minister setting out the government’s priorities for the year ahead, has become a key fixture in the Holyrood calendar.

It’s Scotland’s answer to the Queen’s Speech and no one is in any doubt who the queen is.

Naturally, the subject of independence came up — what do you think we’re in, some kind of pandemic? — and Nicola Sturgeon played her familiar dual role as promiser and postponer of Indyref2. The SNP leader front-loaded her address with constitutional chat. In a speech composed of 210 sentences, it took until sentence five to mention independence. 

She ‘reaffirm[ed] the Scottish Government’s commitment to an independence referendum’ and averred: ‘Our democratic mandate to allow the people to decide the country’s future is beyond question, and at this juncture in history it is essential that we consider the kind of country that we want to be and how best to secure it.’ 

The First Minister reiterated a deadline for another referendum — before the end of 2023, Covid permitting — and revealed that the Scottish Government would ‘restart work on the detailed prospectus that will guide the decision’. To a newcomer, it might have sounded as though the SNP leader was saying something momentous. In fact, she was reading from an old script and one decidedly lacking in the documentary stakes. 

That script began life in the remarks Sturgeon gave to accompany her 2016 programme: ‘[W]e will consult on a draft referendum bill so that it is ready for immediate introduction if we conclude that independence is the best or only way to protect Scotland’s interests.’ Then, the following year, they were condensed: ‘[W]e will consider again the issue of a referendum on independence when the terms of Brexit are clear.’

By 2018, the rhetoric was grander than ever: ‘As the terms of Brexit become clearer in the months ahead, we will consider and set out our view on how Scotland’s interests can best be protected and advanced… It is clear that an increasing number of our fellow citizens believe, as we do, that the best future for Scotland lies in becoming an independent country.’

Come 2019, the same stale lines were still being passed off as original dialogue: ‘[W]e intend to offer the people of Scotland the choice of a better and more positive future as an independent nation.’ The next year, amidst the worst ravages of the pandemic, Sturgeon was to be found promising: ‘[W]e will publish, before the end of this session of parliament, a draft bill setting out the proposed terms and timing of an independence referendum’. Hours later, restrictions were reimposed in Glasgow to stem the rising tide of new cases. 

This curious alloy of first ministerial fixation and elaborate excuse-making for inactivity gives the impression that Sturgeon might be conflicted. But she is much more calculating than that. Which one of these competing Sturgeons is the real Nicola? They all are — and none are. 

Nicola Sturgeon believes in independence and hopes that, some day soon, there will be a perfect alignment of an SNP government at Holyrood, public opinion decisively in favour of secession, and a UK Government willing to grant a referendum. At present, only the first of those conditions is met. Sturgeon’s challenge is to deliver the second condition and use it as a moral battering ram to secure the third. 

Those who want her to move faster, to circumvent the normal channels and bring about independence without regard to the vicissitudes of opinion polling or the niceties of the British constitution, have no serious grounds for optimism. Yes, she floated a scheme before the election to press ahead with a referendum and let Boris Johnson take her to court if he didn’t like it, but though defiant-sounding this plan is likely another dead end. Even if the courts sided with her, a swift edit to the Scotland Act and the victory would be rendered hollow. 

The SNP rank-and-file must also contend with the Sturgeon who told the BBC in 2015 that, were she to fail to achieve independence, she would be ‘disappointed’ but ‘philosophical’. She added: ‘If I do my best every day I’m in office, hopefully one day, many years from now, I’ll look back and say, whatever the eventual outcome, I did my best and at the end of the day I think that’s all a politician can do.’

I have drawn attention to this interview before because, although generally overlooked, I consider it the most important — and telling — one she has ever given. She is saying, in effect, that independence is not the be all and end all of her political career, quite the suggestion from the leader of the SNP. Office changes politicians but there is scant evidence it has changed Sturgeon on this point. 

Indeed, there are so many audiences for her every word that each can take what they want from her precisely crafted sentences. Nationalist hardliners hear bombastic patter about democracy and sovereignty, party moderates pick up a message of cautious gradualism, and undecided voters register the ifs, the tests and the caveats.

The policy papers, the fundraising drives, the groups launched and the speeches given — all are for nothing unless the dial is shifted dramatically and that has stubbornly failed to happen. Some in the SNP fear that, if Nicola Sturgeon can’t achieve independence, the cause will be lost for years or even decades. Winning it back will take a lot more than reheated pabulum to MSPs once every year. 

None of this should tempt Scotland’s Unionists into complacency. Indeed, they are as much at risk of being taken in as their separatist counterparts. 

These days, every Prime Minister who comes down the pike declares him or herself a friend of the Union, but that hardly means much. David Cameron was trumpeted as a heart-and-soul Unionist. Yet he twice ripped powers away from Westminster and gave them to the SNP as well as handing Alex Salmond an independence referendum on far more favourable terms than he dared dream of. In this, as in all matters, approach politicians the way Ronald Reagan did the Soviet Union: ‘Trust, but verify’. 

The only true friends of the Union are you — Unionists. People who love this country and cannot bear the thought of it being torn apart to satisfy the vanity and power-hunger of political also-rans chasing their one chance at greatness. Nationalists have grown comfortable being told what they want to hear. Unionists must never do the same. 

All change at Tory Towers as Douglas Ross unveils his new backroom team.

Ex-Number 10 brains trust Elliot Roy is policy and strategy director while spin champ David Bateman — a former colleague — has been promoted to communications director. 

I understand Ross’s reshuffle is both about stamping his signature on the party operation and beefing it up to take on the SNP. 

The key figure will be new chief of staff Jon Novakovic, who joins from NGO Mercy Corps where he specialised in crisis management in Afghanistan and Lebanon. The New South Wales native also had a stint as a policy adviser in Barry O’Farrell’s Liberal government.

I’m told Novakovic impressed Ross with his analysis of how the SNP went from opposition to government in 2007 and what the Tories could learn from it. The party needs to shape up if it is ever to be a serious threat to the Nationalists. Novakovic has, as they say Down Under, heaps of hard yakka on his hands. 

Is there any TV correspondent Nicola Sturgeon dreads sitting down with more than Peter Smith?

The ITV News man is like a dog with a bone, as seen again when he grilled the First Minister on the Greens’ despicable views on Israel. Smith’s tough, forensic approach is a refreshing break from the deference Sturgeon is typically shown on TV. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail on September 13, 2021.

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