This time last year she was riding high in the polls but her numbers have since plummeted. Her minority government, propped up by a small fringe party, lumbers from crisis to crisis. The country’s future relationship to Europe is fast becoming a source of division in her once united party.
Not Theresa May, who doesn’t have her sorrows to seek, but Nicola Sturgeon, a one-woman balancing act at the head of a party no longer sure what it wants but which expects her to juggle all the options until they make their minds up. Nowhere is her task more precarious than on Scotland’s relationship with the European Union.
The UK Government is pressing ahead with Brexit, a policy opposed by Scots but one on which, counterintuitively, they want to get much the same deal as south of the border. SNP members are predominantly pro-EU because they perceive it as a path-smoother on the road to independence but the Nationalist vote is more diverse and houses a sizeable chunk of Leavers. These tensions have been exacerbated by events on the Iberian Peninsula. Catalonia, an autonomous region of Spain tried to hold a unilateral referendum on independence last week, prompting a brutal and counter-productive response from Madrid. From amidst the chaos, doubts — a precious commodity in the SNP — are growing about the European project.
Back in 2014 when Unionists prophesied, some with unseemly glee, that an independent Scotland would be snubbed by Brussels, Yes campaigners refused to believe it. They might not be well-disposed to nationalism but the European Commissioners were rational actors; they would hardly turn away an eager volunteer for ever-closer union. The bloody scenes in Catalonia and the EU’s failure to censure Spain marks a break for some in Scotland’s national movement who romanticised Brussels as an Anti-Westminster of pluralistic cooperation and Enlightenment values. Now it bears the grim pallor of self-serving bureaucracy and who knows how it might react to a separate Scotland one day down the line.
Hence the mixed-messages from the Nationalists. A number of SNP politicians, including senior MPs Joanna Cherry and Douglas Chapman, have flown out to Catalonia to lend their support to the separatists and denounce the Spanish government in acrimonious terms. More than a dozen of their colleagues accused Madrid of ‘an affront to democracy’ in a letter to the Guardian, the political equivalent of telling Mariano Rajoy’s mum on him.
The party leadership is more restrained. Grilled on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon would not be drawn on whether her government would recognise a unilateral declaration of independence by Catalonia. Nationalist guru Kevin Pringle notes in a despatch that Scotland is in ‘a very different situation’ from Catalonia, where the ‘unconstitutional referendum’ inspired only ‘a minority turnout’. Students of the Soviet Union used to employ Kremlinology, or reading between the lines, to understand Moscow’s thinking on any issue. Kevinology works in much the same way and if Mr Pringle is keen that his fellow Nationalists keep the heid we can be assured that Bute House is of a similar mind.
Miss Sturgeon will not want to displease Spain for obvious reasons: Madrid would have a veto on any EU membership bid by a separate Scotland. Yet her shock troops know this and are still getting mouthy with Moncloa Palace. Is the ground shifting on the SNP’s attitude to Brussels?
‘Independence in Europe’ has been SNP policy since 1988, when the party conceded that absolute sovereignty was a mirage in a rapidly globalising and interconnected world. An independent Scotland inside the EU would be free from the yoke of Westminster while benefiting from the economic clout of a giant trading bloc. Strategically it was canny too, divesting the SNP of then-unfashionable Euroscepticism and undermining Labour’s charge that they were parochial Little Scotlanders.
Yet ‘Independence in Europe’ has always been a rough sketch and has since been abandoned by its chief architect Jim Sillars. For while it dropped the cause of unfettered statehood, the SNP maintained the rhetoric anathematising a capricious political establishment in Westminster imposing its diktats from afar. The danger was that some in the movement would begin to question whether Brussels was just Westminster on the Senne. Brexit and Catalonia may be bumps in the road for SNP policy on Europe or they may have loosened the wheels on the whole project.
The First Minister chooses her words carefully. She proclaims the EU to be A Good Thing, Brexit a calamity and bolting the single market ‘an act of monumental folly’. What she doesn’t say is that an independent Scotland would seek to join the EU thus returning us to the bosom of continental civilisation and European citizenship. For a start, this would require her to raise the spectre of independence (irritating most of the voters) and commit to an EU that is becoming more integrated (irking Nationalists who want decisions made at Holyrood).
Shifting the discussion to the single market is a ploy piloted by talk show host and former politician Alex Salmond. For the past year, Mr Salmond has been touting the ‘Norway option’ — membership of the European Free Trade Area, which would grant access to the common market, instead of joining the EU immediately. By moving Europe policy into a halfway house, Miss Sturgeon hopes to placate all wings of her party and the greatest number of voters. Instead, she is fostering uncertainty about where the SNP stands at a time when it should be set to hoover up votes if Brexit hits the buffers. Once again, Nicola Sturgeon can’t be square with us because she’s too busy triangulating.
The First Minister’s speech tomorrow is an opportunity to stamp her authority on the party’s Europe policy. Fail to confront the growing Euroscepticism in her ranks and Miss Sturgeon will come to regret it. Scots are not convinced of the case for independence in Europe, let alone the alternative — independence on the outside and Scotland alone in the world.
US political thriller Designated Survivor has returned to Netflix for a second season and I’m hopelessly addicted. Kiefer Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a lowly housing secretary catapulted into the Oval Office after the rest of the US Government is wiped out in a terrorist attack.
President Kirkman is a goody-two-shoes fantasy politician. The latest episode had him fess up to the American people after ordering a military strike based on dodgy intelligence. He wouldn’t last 45 minutes in the real world.
Kirkman spends much of his time personally overseeing the hunt for terrorists and when he has to do boring presidential stuff — we got halfway through season one before he noticed there was no Supreme Court — he sends Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), the only FBI agent in America, to take down small armies single-handedly.
Designated Survivor is the West Wing without the Latin jokes and 24 minus the torture porn. It’s sheer Hollywood tosh but a welcome escape from events in the real White House
Conservative MPs have mauled would-be leadership contender Grant Shapps in leaked WhatsApp messages. ‘Wind your neck in’ is one of the more printable remarks. Finally, Home Secretary Amber Rudd has found a way around end-to-end encryption. Stick a Tory MP in a chat group and nothing will stay private for long.