The SNP is treading water — and has been for some time
In fifteen years of governance, the Scottish National Party has put to the Scots people an unvarying, and hugely effective claim, presented as a truth. Independence from the United Kingdom will: restore a pride in a nation state cruelly truncated three centuries ago; release Scots from the economic failures of the ever-sluggish British economy; allow re-union with a Europe of which it was always a more ardent part than chauvinist England; and elevate Scotland to a place among the prosperous and pacific social democracies of Scandinavia.
This beguiling vision was developed by two of the most effective politicians of the late 20th and early 21st century, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon — inspirational speakers, ruthless in their presentation of half facts and full-blooded falsities. Where Salmond was ever walking on a tightrope of bad behaviour, Sturgeon has been the living proof of Scots’ tendency to see themselves as more moral than the English — an act eased by the premiership of Boris Johnson, in whom no sliver of decency, integrity or competence can be allowed to exist.
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Yet now, the message from the council elections is not that of another SNP triumph, but of a party, and a leader, at their highest level well short of the peak. Independence, not governance of a part of the UK, is the SNP’s sincere desire. And independence recedes.
The results of the council elections have hardly changed the field on which Sturgeon operates. The SNP has not lost seats — indeed, it has gained them. Despite a few Labour gains, the nationalists have politically gutted Keir Starmer’s party in its urban and industrial heartlands as effectively as they were gutted economically over the past half century, and it will take more than a few tens of new Labour councillors to staunch these wounds – for now.
Yet the fact that the SNP is treading water, and has been for several years, means that Sturgeon, who has given all of her colossal energy to what is seen as “Freedom!” — Braveheart’s cry — now has nowhere else to go, and talks – to Vogue! – of another life after Holyrood.
The transcendent future promised by Sturgeon is highly popular with half of Scotland. But only half. And she, who has said in the past that she would not go to referendum on independence until she believed 60% of the population were for it, will not do it when — as now — assent to secession is a little less than 50%.
One of her supporters in the media, the distinguished theatre critic and social commentator of The Scotsman Joyce McMillan, wrote recently that the forces are not aligned for a pro-independence vote, “and may not be for another half decade”. That Sisyphean prospect cannot bring gladness to Sturgeon’s heart. She promised a referendum in 2023 — but few believe the forces will be more aligned then. Her party may not be losing votes, but it is not gaining many more either. She cannot think her chances of winning the referendum will do better any time soon; and, even if no one of her talent is visible to succeed, she is not likely to be long for her post.