Barely had the Prime Minister shut the door of Number 10 behind her than the SNP leader was beating a path to the nearest BBC camera.
She can’t get someone halfway competent to run Scotland’s schools but she knows where to find Brian Taylor and a microphone in a pinch.
Miss Sturgeon pronounced Theresa May guilty of a ‘huge political miscalculation’ for calling an early general election. This means one of two things: 1) Theresa May made a huge political miscalculation in calling an early election, or 2) Nicola Sturgeon does not want a general election at this moment in time.
Who could blame her? The first signs are emerging that the Church of Sturgeon is growing agnostic. After ten years in charge, the SNP’s record is mediocre at best and in the First Minister’s ‘priority’ portfolio, education, outcomes are so poor that the Scottish Government has withdrawn from two of the major surveys of schooling quality. The Nationalists could hardly complain — though they will, endlessly — if opponents fight a reserved election on devolved matters; the SNP is currently campaigning in the council elections on UK Government welfare policy.
While broken promises on cancer waiting times, class sizes, and A&E admissions could cost the Nationalists some votes, the real task they are up against is framing their support for a second referendum on independence. Miss Sturgeon called for a fresh plebiscite just before Mrs May triggered Article 50. Having put independence on the table, she would find it mightily difficult to take it back off again so soon.
In the 2015 election, the Nationalist leader asked Unionists for their votes by parking the push for separation. The SNP manifesto at that poll insisted: ‘The SNP will always support independence — but that is not what this election is about. It is about making Scotland stronger.’ Presumably Miss Sturgeon does not think Scotland strong enough yet; if it were, she and her party would have to find something else to occupy their time, perhaps a new hobby like Bikram Yoga or governing the country.
If she tried to repeat the 2015 tactic, even her Stepford membership would start to push back. ‘Now’s not the day and now’s not the hour’ might be electorally savvy but it is a cowardly nationalism indeed. More likely than not a form of words will be found that appeases her grassroots while bearing in mind most of the country has higher priorities than throwing off the yoke of English occupation.
And this is the hinge of the general election in Scotland. If the Murrells’ manifesto — let’s drop the pretence than anyone else will get a say — goes beyond warm words about the desirability of independence, if it contains an affirmative statement of intent for the voters to endorse or reject, the stakes will be kicked up into the gods. If the SNP returns a majority of Scottish seats, it will contend that the voters have conferred on it a mandate. The Nationalists believe they already have a mandate — then again, they also believe there are secret oil fields being covered up by Jackie Bird and Barrhead Travel — but to prise one from the electorate in a Westminster fight is the ultimate glory.
There might be some Unionists who cavil if Miss Sturgeon’s party fails to secure a majority of the vote share but this logic bears little scrutiny. Applied to the UK as a whole, it would hold that no administration has held a genuine mandate since Stanley Baldwin’s National Government took 55% of the votes cast in 1931.
That is why whatever form of words the First Minister chooses will be pored over by opponents and constitutional scholars alike. A majority of seats returned on an explicit commitment to hold a second independence referendum comes with one significant drawback: It would require there to be a second independence referendum. The polls say the country is not yet with the SNP’s dream of £15bn of spending cuts and tax rises in exchange for a few more flags and brass plaques. One option would be to commit to securing for Holyrood the right to decide when another plebiscite is held, thus supplying the Scottish Government a mandate without a timeframe.
In these circumstances, Downing Street would have no option but to concede popular endorsement for the Nats’ chosen path. Failure to do so would risk a constitutional crisis that redrew Scotland’s relationship to the UK along the lines of that between Catalonia and Spain. This outcome would succeed only in pouring rocket fuel into the campaign for a separate Scotland.
The opposition knows the best it can hope for is to deprive the Nats of a handful of marginal seats. However strongly Unionist Scotland feels about preventing a second referendum, its votes are divided between three parties and under first past the post that awards victory to the SNP almost every time. There is the possibility of tactical voting though it might end up having the same impact it had in 2015: Zero. For all the SNP likes to demagogue their opponents as cut from the same political cloth, the truth is that the Unionist parties are no less tribal than two years ago. If anything, they are more so.
There would be scope to humble the SNP (if not deprive them of first place in the election) if the pro-Britain parties were to forge a non-aggression pact. That would mean Labour agreeing not to field a candidate in seats it could never win (Moray, for example) to give the Conservatives a free run while the Tories would back off in Edinburgh South to guarantee Ian Murray’s return to the green benches. Such an agreement would be in the best interests of the Union, maximising pro-UK MPs and minimising separatists, but it would be politically toxic. Local parties would resent being stood down and ordered to work with rivals; resignations and defections would surely follow. It would also donate more ammunition to the SNP’s effort to pretend there is no difference between the anti-separation parties.
One powerful force, however, might be on their side: Political gravity. The SNP has been riding high for a decade and even if they will continue to dominate the Scottish electoral map for a generation (however we’re defining such a time period these days), there is a tipping point at which their support must peak. If that point has been reached and were to cost the SNP seats and percentage points in vote share, it would gift Ruth Davidson a hefty cudgel with which to hammer the Nats. (If you handed Miss Davidson a blancmange she would find a way to hammer the Nats with it.)
The Scottish Tory leader would be able to portray even a modest falloff in support as evidence that voters are tiring of the SNP gripe and grievance show. Crucially, she could argue that it undermined any mandate for Indyref2. If the SNP managed just shy of 50% of votes in 2015, when it downplayed separation, anything less than that when the constitution was in play could be cited as proof that Scotland does not want another divisive poll.
Of course, this is an election about two referenda and it is not merely Miss Sturgeon’s preferred one that will cause her difficulties. Brexit will be centre stage from now until polling day and the SNP is divided on Europe like at no time since the 1980s. The party has essentially jettisoned its commitment to the EU for short-term political positioning. Confronted by a recalcitrant Brexiteer minority within her party, Nicola Sturgeon chose to appease the Little Scotlanders.
Since the triggering of Article 50, the SNP has gone from full-fledged support for the EU to proposing that an independent Scotland merely join the arms-length European Free Trade Association. To go into this election with her position on the EU unclear is not where Miss Sturgeon expected to be but she ought to have known her Indyref2 gambit would have consequences. Some tried to warn her and now she will have to learn the hard way.
Election 2017 is both the most predictable and the most unknowable in many years. We can be sure that Jeremy Corbyn’s Marxist rabble will be routed by Britons. We are not a radical country; a revolution would make us miss Coronation Street and for the life of us we still can’t work out how to record it to watch later. What we don’t know is whether the people of Scotland will finally see through Nicola Sturgeon’s clanjamfrie of chancers. If they don’t, the future of the Union will remain in doubt for years to come.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.