RUNNING OUT OF ROAD
The First Minister knows she is out of cards to wager, and the only play left is the big gamble. But hubris will be her downfall
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Quem Iuppiter vult perdere, dementat prius - those whom Jupiter wishes to destroy, he first deprives of reason. The saying is echoed in the Sophocles play Antigone, in verses 620-623 we find evil appears as good in the minds of those whom god leads to destruction. In modern parlance we say those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad. For those of us living in contemporary times, the sin of western politics is one of hubris. A flaw so deeply embedded in political leaders enjoying long stretches of power, that they become oblivious to the dangers they face. Or at least are so overcome by self-confidence that they are blind to their own limits.
Our First Minister might consider her actions this week are being driven by the old proverb that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, however critics might disagree. Not least since it only holds if there is an essential need for independence forcing her to find ways of getting or achieving it. Judging by the opinion polling evidence, for the majority of Scots the need for a fresh plebiscite on the constitutional question is ambiguous. While a majority of Scots believe there should be one at some point in the future, they are surely not thinking of a timeline within the next five years.
So, the need for a fresh referendum in the minds of voters is less ‘essential’, more ‘secondary’. If anything, the three crises facing voters; war in Europe, pandemic and brexit related fallout, have conspired to make a revisit of the constitutional question an auxiliary priority for most. The single mothers the length and breadth of Scotland are surely more preoccupied with inflation nearing 11 per cent than if Ms Sturgeon’s government should have more powers.
But Nicola Sturgeon must know this, she has not survived at the top of Scottish devolved politics for so many years by misreading the room. Our First Minister has historically relied on rhetorical smarts to delay actually having to grasp the nettle on having a referendum. Over the last seven years she has variously promised indyref2 ‘next year’. Yet, as devices for playing for time go, this has begun to lose traction. Pro-independence activists now struggle to take it on faith that there actually will be one.
Ms Sturgeon’s rhetoric of a new referendum next year being ‘her intention’ stretches credulity by this point. Worse, the SNP leader must realise it has begun to make her sound slippery and evasive. Worst still, a political joke and twitter meme. There is a plethora of punchlines floating around Scottish political twitter where she is the grand old Duchess of York, marching up and down the hill.
Yet the central problem remains for her, most Scottish voters are still of the mind that now is not the time. There is nothing approaching a consensus for revisiting the question, but her grassroots are growing increasingly restless for forward movement toward the goal of independence. So what is a habitually cautious politician to do?
Ordinarily this is where the ‘cunning plan’ long plotted is hatched, but frankly there is not one. What the First Minister has done is attempt to wrestle back the initiative by getting on the front foot. Rather that wait for the inevitable private citizen or UK Government court challenge to happen upon launching her referendum bill in Holyrood, instead she preemptively had the Lord Advocate refer it to the UK Supreme Court. Ms Sturgeon must know the odds of the UK Supreme Court striking down her referendum is high, but that is the point. She speeds up the process of having a referendum for next year taken off the table - knowing full well most Scots do not wish to see one happen anyway. But by ensuring a UK court is the hand removing it from the table, and quickly, she can weaponised it to energize her base before the next general election.
None of it is the stuff of subtlety or cunning, but it is bold. After all, the critical element is where the SNP leader said she would fight the next general election as if it were a ‘de facto referendum’. What this means is that Ms Sturgeon seeks to ensure relevance in a UK election which otherwise would have been to Scottish Labour’s advantage. Now the debate will be less about the future election being a referendum on Boris Johnson and once more all about the SNP’s favourite topic: the constitution. And if by happy coincidence it makes Sir Keir Starmer’s life harder by gifting Boris Johnson the chance to play the anti-SNP fear card to English voters, all the better for her.
What we have seen is a First Minister successfully avoid having to take responsibility to her own base when her promised referendum does not materialise next year. She can do a pantomime Zola and screech J'Accuse...! at Westminster. All safe in the knowledge Scottish voters really do not want the vote next year anyway. Additionally, she gets to engineer a fresh grievance to help turnout the SNPs increasingly demoralised voter base in time for the next general election.
And who knows, maybe enough Scottish voters will feel enough resentment at being dismissed by a British court that she can find fresh fertile ground to pretend the UK is not really a union of equals at all.
Additionally, she can also neatly side-step any embarrassment where pro-UK parties boycott any future referendum. Scottish Conservative, Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrat cannot sit-out a general election, deciding who the next Prime Minister is to be. The First Minister is something akin to an uninvited houseguest who has succeeded in injecting herself into the party.
However, there are huge risks ahead for Nicola Sturgeon now. For one thing, what happens if the next general election does not show a 50 per cent plus share of the vote for pro-independence parties? If that should happen, her ‘de facto’ referendum becomes the epitaph on the pro-independence tombstone. For her personally, it would represent a serious loss of political authority - Scottish voters would have directly rebuked her and voted by majority share of the vote against what she has now said is the single issue the next general election will be all about.
At the last Holyrood election the SNP and Scottish ‘Green’ Parties only managed 49 per cent in the constituency vote. On the regional side, the two parties only managed 48.4 per cent. Obviously neither represents a majority share of the vote. In fact you need to also add in Alba to finally reach the finish line with 50.12 per cent on the regional vote share. And how likely is it that Alba voters - deeply alienated from the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon’s own leadership will vote SNP in the next general election? That is a rather large unknowable.
The one trait I have long associated with the First Minister has been ‘cautious’. She is a careful player of the political game, instinctively avoiding the reckless gamble (more a trait associated with her predecessor Alex Salmond). So what does this all tell us of Ms Sturgeon? The bold, confrontational and distinctly unsubtle manoeuvre is likely born out of necessity. Not the political necessity felt by millions of voters struggling on the breadline. Nor even any necessity for the pro-independence cause, which now is at risk of defenestration should they fall short of the 50 per cent plus vote share target. The only necessity here is Nicola Sturgeon’s and the signs are not good. After all, everyone knows there is no such thing as a ‘de facto’ referendum, but we all do know what a pretendyref looks like.
She knows she has run out of cards to wager, and the only play left is to gamble big. We could very well look back on this week as the beginning of the end of the Sturgeon era. The First Minister is risking everything, including the future of the SNP. She is risking embarrassment should Scottish voters decide that there are actually a range of issues influencing how they might vote in the next general election. As Professor James Mitchell explained, “it isn’t for a political party to dictate the terms of an election” to Scottish voters. Only the truly hubristic would dare imagine they could. As Greek tragedies like Antigone warn us, an excess of ambition, pride and hubris ultimately causes the transgressors ruin. Perhaps even better would be ‘presumption’ or ‘overweening self-confidence’?
Panelbase: ‘Do you think another Scottish independence referendum should be held in the next 12 months, in the next 2-5 years or there should not be another referendum in the next few years?’, Field work dates: 3 March 2021 - 29 April 2022, https://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/do-you-think-another-scottish-independence-referendum-should-be-held-in-the-next-12-months-in-the-next-2-5-years-or-there-should-not-be-another-referendum-in-the-next-few-years/
ComRes: When, if ever, do you think there should be another Scottish independence referendum?’, Field work dates: 11 December 2020 - 3 May 2022, https://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/when-if-ever-do-you-think-there-should-be-another-scottish-independence-referendum/