Nicola Sturgeon has had more comebacks than Cher, ripped denims and Boris Johnson.
The SNP leader’s time in the spotlight has been declared over many times already and each time she finds a way to remain centre stage. Write her off at your peril.
We cannot, however, ignore the speech she delivered on Friday or the dismal reaction it engendered in her rank and file. The address in Edinburgh was billed as setting out the ‘next steps’ for the SNP in its pursuit of independence, following the Prime Minister’s rejection of a Section 30 order for a Scexit referendum and in the final hours before the UK left the EU.
After months and years of agitating her supporters, Sturgeon’s speech essentially asked them to calm down and let her handle this. She expressed caution about a legal challenge to the PM’s letter and scepticism about a wildcat referendum, which some in her party would like to see.
She asked her followers for ‘patience and respect’, ‘to stay focused and resolute’, and to recall that the party’s founders had not given in to ‘impatience or frustration’. (Wisely, she did not ask them to recall the founders’ views on Europe back then, some of which were what the youngsters call ‘problematic’.)
The sense of deflation was palpable. She had led her troops onto the battlefield then told them to turn back and wait for better weather. On social media and among otherwise sympathetic commentators, there was frustration and even anger. Years of bitten tongues had produced nothing but blisters; swallowing their concerns about Sturgeon’s strategy had not brought them to the brink of victory as promised. Those tongues began to loosen and, in a phenomenon we are likely to see more of, they engaged in some yellow-on-yellow remonstration.
This is not new, but it is new of late. Across many bouts of internal strife in its 86-year-history, the SNP was united by a common fondness for factionalism. There was the split of 1942, the ‘55 Group, the ‘79 Group, and throughout one of the defining questions of Scottish nationalism: gradualism or fundamentalism? Yet the party was born of a union between the leftish National Party of Scotland and the imperialist Scottish Party, both of which concluded that splitting the self-government vote was futile.
From the very start, unity was a cornerstone of the SNP and it dominated the party’s inaugural conference in Glasgow on April 7, 1934. A Glasgow Herald report of that gathering records that Sir Alexander MacEwen, the SNP’s first leader, called the unification ‘a spontaneous movement resulting from the desire of people of different shades of opinion to work together for the cause of self-government’.
He argued, the newspaper continued, that ‘the more they came together, the more it was borne in upon them that whatever their differences might be, they were differences of detail and not differences of principle’. These disagreements ‘did not affect the one quest on which they were all centred’.
This is the primal tension in the SNP. Should disputes about strategy and philosophy be set aside to achieve independence, or does suppressing open debate make it harder to break from approaches that clearly have failed? Crudely put, ‘shut up for indy’ versus ‘speak up for indy’.
In the period from 2004 to present, the years of preparing for then assuming power, the former way of thinking has reigned. These years have been a time of extraordinary unity for the SNP. Until now, internal dissent has reached a meaningful level on only two issues: the party’s U-turn on NATO and the Scottish Government’s rush to reform the Gender Recognition Act.
Otherwise, the Holyrood and Westminster parliamentary groups almost always vote as a bloc, including on conscience matters, and MPs are even proscribed by the party rule book from ‘publicly criticis[ing] a group decision, policy or another member of the group’.
‘Shut up for indy’ has delivered the SNP unforeseen political bounties. Three terms in government at Holyrood and control of perhaps the most powerful sub-national parliament anywhere in the world. Three straight victories in Westminster elections, two of them landslides. A referendum in which 45 per cent of Scots voted to break up the Union.
The ‘shut up for indy years’ have been the embodiment of the spirit described by MacEwen in 1934, of a party ‘embarking on its task in a broad spirit and with a determination to make a practical contribution to the industrial, agricultural, economic and social problems of their country’. It is why Sturgeon spoke on Friday about ‘the strength of our unity and our commitment to the cause’.
And yet and still, the purpose of the SNP, the first line of its constitution, remains unfulfilled. Scottish national sovereignty has not been restored and does not look likely to be any time soon. At the very height of its electoral strength and political power, the SNP is no closer to independence than it was in the early hours of September 19, 2014. Perhaps the time has come to ‘speak up for indy’.
The first figure of significance to do so is Stuart Campbell, styled ‘Rev Stu’, a pro-independence pamphleteer and editor of the website Wings over Scotland. He responded to Sturgeon’s speech with a sermon of such fire and brimstone as to suggest his ministry is of the Old Testament kind. Sturgeon’s strategy on Brexit was ‘both morally questionable and… never had a credible hope of success’.
Instead of locating an escape hatch, ‘the Scottish Government sat on its hands and did nothing but accumulate a pile of worthless mandates while the clock ticked down’. The SNP was guilty of a ‘colossal, criminal dereliction of duty’. Should the diarchy of Sturgeon and the SNP’s chief executive, her husband Peter Murrell, continue, Campbell contended, ‘the war is probably lost’.
Campbell’s blog might offend Unionists and those in the upper echelons of the SNP but when it speaks, it speaks with the voices of many thousands of party members and supporters, including grassroots activists and some elected politicians. If you want to understand what diehard Nationalists think, you could commission a poll or you could save yourself the hassle and read Wings over Scotland.
Whether he carries them into his cynicism about the SNP leadership remains to be seen. The party has never had an external ideologue with his sway over members. They may conclude that he’s onto something or they may decide the angry man with the keyboard has outlived his usefulness and stick loyally with their leader.
But the charge sheet against Nicola Sturgeon is not just that she has failed to achieve independence. Her day-to-day governance of the country no longer enjoys that mystical, mostly unearned, aura of competence. The country may not be ready to toss the SNP out of office but that is because neither the Tories nor Labour is seen as a credible alternative. The First Minister is living on time borrowed from her opponents’ failings. They won’t fail forever.
Strip away public services, strip away independence, strip away her once towering poll ratings, and you are left with a leader who wins elections. Nothing to be sniffed at in most parties but the SNP aspires to more than running the British state’s branch office in Scotland.
We are living in volatile times in which the mildest breeze can change the political winds. Perhaps public opinion will swing hard behind independence, or Westminster will concede another referendum after the 2021 Holyrood election.
Either would instantly reassert Sturgeon’s authority and shut down speculation about potential successors, several of whom lurk off-stage with varying degrees of patience. Absent such a turnaround, Sturgeon’s leadership will decline gradually and more visibly as time goes on. She will still win elections but she will be a proven loser when it comes to the one vote her party cares about winning.
There is, of course, one other option. She might decide for the good of the party, the cause and her legacy that it is time for her to move on. Enoch Powell said: ‘All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.’
Sturgeon’s political career is approaching midstream. She can either end it as the most electorally successful leader the SNP has ever known, or as the 13th in a row who failed to realise her party’s abiding dream.