Sturgeon cares about power first and independence second

Politics has always been a ghastly business but at least there used to be ground rules.

Families were generally considered off-limits (though, as Jacob Rees-Mogg’s son found out, not any more), as was an opponent’s health (Charles Kennedy learned the hard way that not everyone respects that convention).

Knifing opponents in the back was fair game — a time-honoured tradition, even — but civilians were a different matter. The ordinary voters, loyal supporters and party foot soldiers could be lied to, hidden from, ginned up and let down, but they couldn’t be fitted up. They enjoy none of the power of those in the political elite and doing them over was a low blow.

That ordinance is changing. The announcement that Nicola Sturgeon will headline this week at a Glasgow rally has thrilled supporters of Scexit. It is a landmark event: the first secessionist march Sturgeon has addressed in five years. It feels to many of them that their time has finally come.

It hasn’t. Five years on from the 2014 referendum, Sturgeon has failed to get up the kind of momentum her predecessor achieved in that vote.

There is no evident majority for leaving the United Kingdom in opinion polling and the latest survey even showed more nationalists becoming unionists than the other way round. Holding another plebiscite now would be a huge gamble with the political career Sturgeon has fought hard to build.

So instead, she keeps them hanging on, vowing that deliverance lies over the next hill. As a party management strategy, it has served her well and by maintaining an illusion of imminence on a second referendum she has been able to keep dissenting voices in line. This has not moved the dial on separation but it has kept the Sturgeon-Murrell dynasty regnant in Bute House.

Unionists carp that the constitution, not education, is the First Minister’s top priority, but in reality it is her own premiership. Number one comes first for most politicians but few manage to make self-preservation a matter of such suffocating sanctimony.

Sturgeon is addressing the rally on Saturday not because Scexit is coming but because it is not, or at least not any time soon. Her every pledge, every test, every ultimatum has fallen flat and it is now clear that her decision to push for a Scexit referendum immediately after the Brexit poll was a miscalculation.

Had she bided her time and allowed the hectic scenes at Westminster to gradually chip away at voters’ confidence, she would have been in a stronger position to coax a second referendum. She blew the play and lost 21 of her team in the 2017 election.

The terrain ahead looks rough. The UK Parliament is in no mood to consign itself to yet more years of constitutional argle-bargle. If the next election returns a Tory government, Sturgeon’s plans hit a brick wall. Only if a minority Labour government finds itself on the Treasury benches does Sturgeon have any hope. Confidence and supply could be traded for a fresh referendum, so the thinking goes, but even that option could be closing off.

Len McClusky, leader of Unite the Union and a former supporter of separation, warned Jeremy Corbyn over the weekend not to give the Nationalists a second referendum. If Labour ends up the largest party, McClusky’s argument goes, it should govern as a minority and let the SNP decide whether to march through the division lobbies with the Tories in vote after vote.

Note that the two main parties are no longer talking in terms of what constitutes a mandate for the SNP; they are beginning to reject a second poll outright. Unless she is prepared to countenance a Catalonia-style wildcat referendum, or risk the Rhodesian option (a unilateral declaration of independence), Sturgeon’s options are growing narrower.

You won’t hear her saying any of this at her George Square rally. Harsh realities don’t win you cheers from the crowd. They would also require Sturgeon to admit that after five years of every wind possible at her back — from Brexit to Boris — she is barely an inch forward from 2014.

So instead she will serve up a feel-good verbal broth to the throngs in Glasgow. She will tell them that it’s within touching distance, that just a little more hard work will get them over the line, that big bad Westminster can’t stop them.

Although they have heard it before, many will push down their private doubts and let themselves believe. Sturgeon is their figurehead, after all, and how could she not be right, given the disarray at Westminster? If it’s the hope that kills you, it’s the self-delusion along the way that makes the eventual end all that more agonising.

Unionists might struggle to feel anything for the nationalist base, an often unloveable foe, but these people are being exploited. That’s politics for you, you might say, but the SNP’s selling point was that it wasn’t like other parties. It would be up-front with you. You could trust Nicola.

Nicola is sacrificing her followers to maintain her position. In telling them that separation is coming soon, she is building them up for another fall, but she is doing something else, too: she’s piling them like human sandbags on the steps of Bute House.

As long as she can convince grassroots SNP members and supporters that she is bringing independence (almost there… nearly… one more heave), they will shield her from challengers for her job.

Activists and polling will warn would-be contenders that the members won’t stand for any internal ructions around the leadership. After all, it would disrupt Nicola’s plan to achieve independence next year. Every time this cynical sandbagging strategy works, there will be another ‘next year’ and another and another after that.

Sturgeon will hold back the tide even as her party’s raison d’etre gets washed away.

Scottish nationalism is not an ignoble cause. Many good and even some great men and women have rallied to it down the generations, seeing dignity in its banner and finding home among its ranks of bloody-minded believers.

Some see sovereignty as a recapturing of a lost identity but others are forward-looking and don’t want Scotland back so much as they want to take it forward.

They may be wrong but they don’t deserve to be used to prolong one woman’s overstay in office. They deserve honesty, and here is some: Nicola Sturgeon will not win you independence and it’s time to start looking for someone who will.


The Mail has fallen foul of the faculty lounge after Saturday’s exclusive on trigger warnings for fairytales at Glasgow University. UK academics are importing campus culture wars from the US and, being academics, they regard popular scrutiny as an impertinence.

But trigger warnings should be scrutinised. Studies support their clinical application with PTSD sufferers but there is little research into their use in higher education by instructors untrained and unqualified in psychology.

One study concluded they had only ‘trivial effects’ and were ‘neither meaningfully helpful nor harmful’, while another found that subjects issued warnings reported heightened vulnerability and anxiety. A 2016 survey of abnormal psychology lecturers found less than a third gave warnings and only a quarter viewed them positively.

Trigger warners say sceptics lack empathy, but rigour is not the enemy of compassion and nor is empiricism. Given the risks of encouraging avoidance or ‘priming’ anxious responses, responsible academics should wait for the evidence before foisting trigger warnings on their students.


It’s that time of year again when nightmarish ghouls come knocking. It’s no use switching off the lights and pretending you’re not home, or even shooing them away with an armful of candy apples. These creatures won’t leave you alone till they have what they want. So just open the door, take their leaflet and say: ‘Oh, another election. What fun.’


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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