SNP still isn’t talking to fearties and Braveheart backsliders

Nicola Sturgeon will set out her thinking on independence after Easter. It is probably too much to hope that she’s changed her mind.

The SNP leader does this every few months. Separatists get restless, she promises liberation just around the corner; but when they get there ‘the fog of Brexit’ still hasn’t lifted.

This is the First Minister’s Shipping Forecast strategy: the good vessel Indyref 2 is still at sea but she’ll get it into dock once the weather picks up.

Her grassroots are starting to wonder if clear skies will ever come. Why won’t she call a second referendum?

Let me tell you why. She isn’t calling one because she doesn’t have the power to call one. She isn’t calling one because she doesn’t have a mandate – and no foot-stomping ‘Scotland’s voice must be heard’ tantrum is going to change that.

She isn’t calling a second referendum because she still doesn’t have answers to the questions that sunk her side in the first one. She isn’t calling one because her Growth Commission is inoffensive bunk but has still managed to get up the nose of the Left of her party.

She isn’t calling another vote for these and many more reasons but, ultimately, it comes down to just one: she would lose.

Recent polling from a Nationalist lobby group suggested support for independence could have slumped to 37 per cent. That is probably too gloomy an assessment but most other polling confirms the underlying message: a majority of Scots are still not convinced of the case for separation.

This prompts everything from bewilderment to resentment to despair in Nationalists – everything except introspection. The SNP doesn’t do self-criticism, except under extreme duress and even then only quietly and away from the children. Since losing in 2014, the party has marched and rallied and shaken its fist. It has demanded and threatened and cajoled.

What it has not done is talk to the voters. Instead, it has preferred to let external forces – Brexit and the extremist takeover of Labour and the Tories – do the heavy-lifting. This isn’t laziness or even arrogance, but fear. The nationalist’s psyche is driven by the conviction that he speaks for the nation and the fear that the nation doesn’t quite deserve his faith in it.

Recently, the author of the Growth Commission report counselled his fellow Nationalists: ‘Do not waste time, energy and spirit engaging with the entrenched and partisan. Focus on the circa 20 per cent of persuadable.’

But it is to those very soft No and wavering Yes voters that the SNP cannot bring itself to speak. These were the fearties who cost Scotland its independence last time and, worse, the Bravehearts of 2014 who have come to doubt the nation.

Their reasons, too, inspire anxiety. If the Nationalists listened to these voters, they would hear concerns about what a separate Scottish currency would mean for their mortgage.

They would have to entertain dull businessmen, whose hearts are not stirred by the flutter of the Saltire, and their pedantic queries about access to the UK single market and the impact on trade. There would be questions about job losses, food and medicine shortages, tariffs on goods and movement of labour when we found ourselves, on Day One of an independent Scotland, outside the UK and the EU.

They would hear, in their terms, a country that does not believe in itself as much as they do. This is why, when you speak to the really clever Nationalists, they are all so glum right now. They see the dream as still very much alive, but more distant than ever.

Yet the bandwagon judders on because Nicola Sturgeon needs something to do with her time – we can all agree running the country is not her forte – and because the people who hold the power in Scotland need something to believe in.

Scotland’s political and media class hoots as Westminster performs the most cringeworthy exit from Europe since that Scouse duo brought home nul points from Eurovision. But Nicola Sturgeon’s proposition that we pursue a course at least as economically disruptive and no less inviting of national humiliation is heard with respectful deference, if not unconcealed enthusiasm.

Brexit has unmoored once-firm intellectual pilings and some of its critics find themselves tugged in a rip-tide towards ideas they scorned not long ago. If Brexit is for something, they are for the opposite; if Brexit is for English nationalism, then Scottish nationalism must have something to it after all. There’s a reason Einstein called this racket ‘the measles of mankind’.

That thinking people could fail to diagnose independence and Brexit as symptoms of the same disease should not surprise us. Orwell warned us that ‘all nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts’.

This is not the product of foolishness but, in our case, of a time-honoured Scottish superiority complex, ill-suited to our national mythos and therefore largely unacknowledged, but stretching back to the Darien scheme and before. The founding document of Scotland is not the Declaration of Arbroath but the Wha’s Like Us? tea towel.

Nowadays, imperial yearnings being a forbidden lust, our self-belief expresses itself through an unshakeable moral certainty: Scotland is more tolerant, progressive and welcoming – not just different, but better. No writer has gone without bread, no politician without votes, who told Jock Tamson’s bairns they were all equal but more equal than John Bull’s bairns.

The spread of the nationalist virus has pulled us into a nuclear arms race of dismal ideas. The Scots dallied with separatism, the English plumped for Brexit; Europeans gave chauvinists a foothold in their parliaments, the Americans put one in the White House; far-Left Eurosceptics seized Greece and almost Spain, Jeremy Corbyn led Labour into a Left-nationalist hybrid that is Brexiteer, anti-immigration and economically populist.

Nicola Sturgeon is unlikely to call for a second referendum any time soon. Her Easter announcement will be hollow as a chocolate egg; her supporters will scoff it down and feel unsatisfied only hours later.

Still, the forces that motor her politics are gaining ground the world over. Those who believe in the opposing imperatives of openness and co-operation cannot stall the forward march of nationalism simply by denying it a referendum here or a new power there.

They must confront it, expose its angry fictions and petty grievances – and win the argument for unity over division.

*****

From Dunblane to devolution, recessions to referendums, Jackie Bird has been the face of Scottish TV news for more years than she would thank me for divulging.

The Reporting Scotland anchor presented her last bulletin on Wednesday night, slipping out afterwards to avoid a big fuss. It was a predictably classy departure for someone who has always seemed more interested in telling the story than being the story.

It’s what kept viewers tuning in: they trusted her.

Thankfully, Bird is only vacating the Rep Scot chair and will remain at Pacific Quay.

It’s rare that a broadcaster of her calibre stays in Scotland and BBC bosses, if they have their heads screwed on, will put this asset to good use.

I’d like to see a hard-hitting consumer justice programme, a documentary strand or a series of intimate interviews with the great and the good.

Whatever McAuntie comes up with for Bird, I have a suggestion: Stick it on the new BBC Scotland channel.

People might finally watch.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.ukContact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk

Published by stephenjdaisley

Political journalist and commentator.

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