This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, April 26, 2021.
To understand the central dynamic of Scottish politics, you needed to do only two things yesterday.
One was watch Nicola Sturgeon’s rambling performance on Andrew Marr, in which she admitted both that independence would erect a physical border between Scotland and England — contradicting her own statement 48 hours earlier — and that she had ‘not yet’ modelled the economic impact of secession on people’s incomes.
The other was consult the latest poll for Survation, which shows 50 per cent of Scots planning to give their constituency vote to the SNP on May 6 and with it, potentially, an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament.
The clearer it becomes that the Nationalists have no credible plan for achieving their solitary goal in politics, the higher their poll numbers climb. Or at least that’s how it seems.
There could be various reasons for this situation. The polls could be wrong. This is the wishful thinking option for Unionists. Yes, faulty sampling and modelling can lead pollsters to over- or under-estimate this party or that, but this would not account for the 25-to-30-point advantage recorded for the SNP across the different polling companies. The SNP is popular with a large segment of the Scottish electorate, however much that fact might baffle or frustrate its most trenchant critics.
Alternatively, the evidence of Scottish Government failure and SNP ill-preparedness on independence might not be cutting through. There could be something to this, but it is not because the electorate is ‘brainwashed’ or unintelligent, as some echo-chamber dwelling Unionists can be heard to pronounce.
Most voters pay only occasional attention to politics — they have lives to live — and in the short timespan they dedicate to it they see, on the one hand, Nicola Sturgeon speaking confidently and with authority from her public office and, on the other, a divided opposition with a revolving door of leaders who split their time between incompetent attacks on Sturgeon and much more studied assaults on each other.
‘Better the devil you know’ served Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair well and it is doing the same for Sturgeon.
A third possibility is the one to which I’m drawn. Namely, that the voters have picked up on Sturgeon’s own reluctance to push ahead on independence and understand that she is going through the motions because she must. They don’t necessarily believe education, health or the economy are doing well under her stewardship but they see no viable alternative. They’ll stick with her until something better comes along but, if push came to shove, they’re not sure if they would take the leap in the dark with her that independence requires.
This electoral cushion has made the SNP complacent and even lazy. In days gone by, the party didn’t have to worry about thinking. It contracted out the cerebral stuff to the likes of Sir Neil MacCormick and Stephen Maxwell and though the Nationalists were nowhere electorally back then, their constitutional propositions were admirably robust.
Academic sympathisers are more numerous these days but, with a few honourable exceptions, more intellectually lightweight, and even if they weren’t, the party hierarchy is plainly uninterested in ideas. Its nationalism is vapid and contentless, driven by the results of the last focus group and underpinned by nothing more enduring than the exigencies of the moment.
Sturgeon’s volte-face on the border is a case in point. On Friday, she told a radio interviewer: ‘Nobody in the SNP wants to see a border between Scotland and England.’ Yesterday on the BBC, she acknowledged ‘the practical difficulties for trade across the England-Scotland border’ and pledged to ‘work with others to make sure we keep trade flowing’.
Sturgeon was bounced into her Friday statement after one of her MSPs suggested a border after separation would create jobs. Emma Harper, standing in Galloway and Dumfries West, told a local reporter that ‘jobs can be created if a border is created’. Harper is the sort of Nationalist who makes you wonder if MI5 has indeed infiltrated the SNP.
Even so, Sturgeon only has herself to blame for her dismal turn on Andrew Marr. For a politician endlessly spun in fawning profiles as well-briefed, collected and in command of detail, she let slip just how shallow her thinking is on the most basic matters of statecraft.
No one in the SNP wishes there to be a border between Scotland and England? The SNP was founded to achieve such a border. It is the sole reason the party exists. It is why it contests elections. It is why it demanded a referendum in 2014 and why Sturgeon wants another one. The SNP is against borders in the same way that the GDR was against walls.
This contradictory mush, which gets mushier and more contradictory by the day to serve Sturgeon’s own political ends, is a pitiful sight to behold. Nationalism can be a respectable creed in some instances but the current leader of Scottish nationalism demeans the movement by pretending it involves a change no more momentous than switching your energy supplier.
If you think Brexit was sold to the public on false pretences, at least Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage accepted that things would be different once the UK left the EU. Sturgeon affects to believe that Scotland can become independent without actually separating from the UK — and conceding the obligations that brings as well as the new freedoms.
She is selling the voters Disney nationalism, in which we drive the ogre from the kingdom but the ogre continues subsidising our public spending and waving through our goods — and we all live happily ever after. This is not how you secure a mandate for statehood. It is how you store up resentment and disappointment for the early days of a bitter nation.
There are two nationalist parties standing in this election, each led by a first minister. Alba, with Alex Salmond at its helm, is generally regarded as the less credible of the two. Its figurehead is yesterday’s man, out for revenge against the woman who stopped standing dutifully behind him and bawling about ancient feuds with the next-door neighbours.
Alba’s attention-seeking and sense of victimhood mark it out as the Fathers4Justice of political parties, as does the impotent tantrum-throwing of threatening to pursue independence outwith the framework of a referendum. It is, as the kids say, pure cringe.
However, Alba is not alone in its fundamental unseriousness. It is less concerned about hiding it — indeed, it flexes its contempt for gradualism — but Salmond’s outfit is no more risible than the party from which it split. The other nationalist party vying for Scotland’s votes is as committed as Alba to the cause over the country, nationalism above the nation, the party before the people.
The SNP is the ultimate chameleon of Scottish politics, adapting over the years to whatever circumstance it found itself in. When radicalism was in the air, it was a radical party; when it came to hold former Conservative seats, it became a conservative party. When there were left-wing votes to be had in Euroscepticism, the SNP was for sovereignty; when the left drifted Brusselswards, ‘independence in Europe’ was the new policy. When oil seemed to promise economic viability for an independent Scotland, petro-nationalism was the order of the day; when the oil price fell and attitudes changed, the party pivoted to eco-nationalism.
Traditional parties of left and right change their stances, their policies, even their central tenets as the result of hard-fought debates about principle and strategy. The SNP has only one belief and glaums onto whatever passing political, social or economic vehicle it thinks will carry it closer to independence. The destination matters, not the journey or the mode of transportation. Independence is everything and it justifies anything.
The polls look good for the SNP now but, whether on the border, the EU, currency, public spending, taxes, the economy or the many more questions that loom over independence, it is becoming more evident by the day that Nicola Sturgeon is making it up as she goes along.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk