The referendum is dead. Long live the referendum.
Nicola Sturgeon’s statement to Holyrood was billed as a ‘reset’ of her strategy on independence. She had gambled on anger at Brexit bringing her a majority for independence but the numbers did not materialise. Still, she pressed on, in some desperate hope that she could berate the country into seeing things her way.
That tactic proved as popular with the punters as you might expect a frustrated tut of ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ to go down. They confiscated 21 of Miss Sturgeon’s Westminster seats and deprived her party of big beasts like Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson.
Humility would now be the First Minister’s watchword. She would recognise her mistake, concede that she had acted precipitously, and withdraw her threat to take Scotland into another divisive referendum.
Instead she swept into the debating chamber, swathed in a Thatcher-blue power suit, to declare the lady was not for turning but might pull over onto the hard shoulder for a bit. Miss Sturgeon sought to ‘reassure people that our proposal is not to have a referendum now’ but ‘give them a choice at the end of the Brexit process’. If you are wondering how that is different from her pre-election position, you are not alone.
The SNP leader confirmed her government would not press ahead with its legislation for a second referendum — generous, since her government had no authority to pursue the bill in the first place. The rest was the First Minister’s favourite country tune: Them cheatin’ Tories, they done us down.
Ruth Davidson accused Miss Sturgeon of being ‘in denial about her mistakes over the past year’ and ‘leaking credibility and confidence in her leadership by the hour. The other party leaders lined up to stick the boot in. ‘The First Minister is digging her heels in, putting her fingers in her ears and pressing on regardless,’ Labour’s Kezia Dugdale declared.
But it was Willie Rennie — smiley, soft-spoken, alpaca-wrangling Willie Rennie — who delivered the killer blow. The Lib Dem leader, his voice seeping uncharacteristic sarcasm, explained Nicola Sturgeon’s attitude to public opinion: ‘The First Minister has had a long, hard think about it and the First Minister has concluded that the First Minister should call another independence referendum at a time of the First Minister’s choosing.’
‘Absolutely nothing has changed,’ he lamented. Not quite. The First Minister has changed pace from full speed ahead to a listless meander into what she hopes is a winning argument. The Grand Old Duke of York marched his men back down the hill; Miss Sturgeon has left hers shy of the summit till she can decide what she wants to do.
What logic could explain this bizarre state of affairs — a reset in which the button is still stuck on independence, a politically induced coma for a policy that the voters have hung a ‘DNR’ sign over? The answer lies where it always lies with the SNP, in their party constitution. Page one, objective one: ‘Independence for Scotland’.
No one reasonably expects the Nationalists to abandon their commitment to ‘the restoration of Scottish national sovereignty’. All the voters ask is for a sign that there are other ideas at work, a glimmer of insight, an appreciation of the world outside constitutional grievance and tin-eared political obsession.
Miss Sturgeon offered no such assurance yesterday.
Alex Salmond was respected, disdained, despised, even grudgingly admired, but his opponents always feared him. No one fears Nicola Sturgeon. Her tormentors on the Tory and Labour benches cackled and howled. When she allowed that some Scots did not want a second referendum, the opposition MSPs piped up: ‘The majority!’
Later, she ventured that ‘the SNP government has been in power for ten years’; ‘We know!’ came the riposte amid more guffawing. The First Minister strained to be heard and tried to reassert her authority by raising her voice: ‘I and this Government will continue to take the decisions that we think are in the best interests of—’
‘The SNP,’ Miss Davidson chimed in. Up went the chuckling and down went the First Minister’s shoulders. Miss Jean Brodie had been replaced by a hapless substitute who couldn’t control the class and suspected they had stuck a ‘kick me’ sign on her back. Even the Liberal Democrats were laughing at her. The Liberal Democrats.
The picture behind her was very different. Rows upon rows of doleful faces grimaced. Kenny Gibson scrolled through his phone. Bob Doris busied himself berating Mike Rumbles for taunting the First Minister. Slumped and mirthless sat George Adam, dreaming of the various envelope-openings he could have been attending in Paisley.
They know what their opponents know: Nicola Sturgeon has lost the argument and she is losing the country.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.