Was that it?
Nicola Sturgeon assembled the world’s press yesterday to outline her next steps on independence, only to send them away with a two-word story: ‘Not yet’. ‘My job is to lead us down a credible path that can deliver independence,’ she said, ‘and that is what I am absolutely determined to do.’
There was a ‘but’ coming; several, in fact. But there would be no ‘shortcuts or clever wheezes’. But any referendum plan ‘must demonstrate that there is majority support for independence’. But ‘its legality must be beyond doubt’.
BBC reporter Philip Sim summarised the speech as being ‘more about the politics of persuasion than process’ but it was all process and none of it persuasive. The First Minister who has spent months — years — ginning up her supporters with the vow that Indyref2 was coming yet for all that finally had to admit that it might not be coming this year as promised.
She ran through the legal technicalities, then political considerations, before warning the faithful: ‘We must stay the course.’ Cribbing George W Bush’s infamous line when the Iraq War went south wasn’t the best idea the First Minister has ever had, though when it comes to delivering independence, it has been a case of Mission Not Accomplished.
What little was new was small indeed. She planned to set up another constitutional convention — the SNP stormed out of the last one — and ask the Electoral Commission to re-test the question used in the 2014 referendum. It was hardly surprising that this thinnest of political gruels was not wolfed down eagerly by her foot soldiers.
‘I will be writing a letter to the Electoral Commission’ is hardly ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’. If George Washington’s big idea had been asking the Continental Congress to run a few focus groups on the wording of the Declaration of Independence, Britain would still have 13 colonies on the eastern seaboard today.
The First Minister’s reluctance to be radical was underpinned by the knowledge that unilateral moves carry huge risks, and grave consequences if they fail. But Sturgeon’s caution was not welcomed by her grassroots as canny. It was greeted as betrayal.
The word itself was raised by Stuart Campbell, author of the popular nationalist website Wings over Scotland. In a lengthy, coruscating critique of the SNP leader posted on Friday, and headlined ‘The Betrayer’, Campbell wrote: ‘Scotland is not one inch closer to its independence now than it was on 19 November 2014. But that’s not to say things have stayed the same. Scotland’s situation has become far worse. As of next week, it will have been wrenched out of the European Union against its people’s clearly stated wishes, as expressed by a 24-point margin in 2016.’
Of course 19 November 2014 is the date Nicola Sturgeon was handed the reins by Alex Salmond. Campbell has been souring on the current SNP leadership for some time, in particular thanks to its stance on the Gender Recognition Act, but his jeremiad fell like a hammer-blow nonetheless.
For better or for worse, he is the authentic voice of the SNP grassroots and for him to damn Sturgeon in unforgiving terms speaks to a wider disillusionment with a politician who not long ago could do nothing wrong in the eyes of Nationalists.
Is this the end for Sturgeon? Her political demise has been predicted so many times but we can say with certainty that the gloss is well and truly off her leadership. Gone is Mother Scotland and in her place is just another politician. They won’t be reviving her signature fashion line any time soon.
Unionists would be foolhardy to write her off at this juncture. She’s got more lives than a cat and the deadly cunning of a panther. The SNP is still an electoral juggernaut, the only credible alternative first minister among the opposition now languishes on the Tory backbenches, and let us not forget the pro-UK side’s seemingly limitless capacity for blunder.
Still, the realisation that Nicola Sturgeon does not walk on water will dawn harshly on many an SNP member. She inherited the leadership with so many advantages and with her opponents in desperate disarray yet she has not lived up to the swelling passions of the moment.
This Glasgow solicitor rides a populist wave but she is no populist. She takes her time and takes her counsel and both tell her that patience and gentle persuasion is how independence will eventually be won. Increasingly, her members have no patience for this way of thinking. You can only march people up to the top of the hill then march them back down again so many times before they want a new leader to follow.
For now, Sturgeon’s grip on the levers of power still seems tight. She and party chief executive, husband Peter Murrell, don’t run the SNP leadership, they are the SNP leadership. Dislodging them would not be easy.
But they stand much weaker than before, thanks to their failure to turn the most propitious circumstances into a second referendum and a Yes victory. Neither Brexit nor Boris has been successfully weaponised as a battering ram against the Union. Some in the party wonder if it will ever see such a golden opportunity again.
The problem for Sturgeon is that not only is the shine gone, others have attained their own gleam. Joanna Cherry, senior MP and key player in legal action against Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament, is popular with grassroots activists and talked of by some as a future leader — and in the not-too-distant future, either.
She is a fighter and the party wants a fighter these days. Derek Mackay has also significantly improved his public speaking and presentational skills and his elevation to the heights of the Scottish Cabinet has not diminished his standing among the rank-and-file. There is no longer no alternative.
Yesterday was a setback for Nicola Sturgeon, rather than a catastrophe, but it fits with longer-term trends of decline. She has been in the job for more than five years, her domestic record is plagued by scandal and under-performance, and she has not moved the dial far enough in the direction of independence.
Nothing that she does, or fails to do, will be as important with the membership as that last one. The SNP exists to gain independence for Scotland and Sturgeon is beginning to look like a hindrance rather than a help in that cause.
We are no closer to a referendum on Scotland’s place in the Union and a referendum on Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership seems likely to arrive first.