“NO CONSIDERATION…will move me to set aside truth in favour of supposed national interests,” said Sigmund Freud. It came to mind this morning, when I awoke to Ian Blackford announcing that an independence referendum could take place “as early as late 2021”. There are three possibilities here: one, Blackford naively believes what he says; two, Blackford, contrary to reputation, is a cunning factionalist, attempting to bounce the SNP leadership into something it doesn’t want to do; three, Blackford is playing mind games with the SNP base – “wheesht for indyref”.
I share the anxiety that this unprecedented peacetime crisis of the British state may pass without a firm conclusion. For this reason, I have campaigned for years for an early referendum. But I am also wary of a potentially sadistic dynamic between leadership and base.
As David Jamieson recently pointed out, Scotland has been six months from a referendum for almost five years, beginning on 23rd June 2016 and still rolling on today. The “nearness” of the referendum allows the SNP (the only party capable of delivering one) to pump members for cash and loyalty. Passions are roused, activists are mobilised, timelines are proposed whenever conferences roll around. Then the issue quietly falls off the agenda. Eventually, thousands leave in exasperation, but fresh recruits take their place, and so the cycle continues.
Support for independence remains healthy. Some polls have shown a fallback, but there’s another today indicating a seven point lead. This has emerged despite nobody making a real case for what independence means or what it involves. But that also hints at weaknesses. In a real campaign, soft support gives way to hard questions. What currency will I use? What about my savings? Will we be in the EU? And so on.
The formal barriers to a referendum are well known. The party-political arithmetic in Westminster’s sovereign parliament is unforgiving. Johnson has taken a firm line; so, for now, has Starmer, who is using every opportunity to flaunt his patriotic bona fides. There’s logistical issues surrounding the pandemic. Sturgeon hints that no referendum will happen until covid is sorted, and much depends on what “sorted” means: the economic impact could last for the foreseeable future.
Into that list, you can add COP26, which, regardless of its precise form, will occupy the minds of Scottish and British leaders. It’s not credible to imagine Sturgeon engaging in a sovereigntist dirty war during November. The mood music will be hands around the world cosmopolitanism, not constitutional struggle with Westminster.
And those aren’t even the biggest hurdles. The deeper problem is an SNP leadership prospectus that needs completely overhauled. The Sustainable Growth Commission was always fantastical, like something a Reaganite think tank might have dreamt up on an away day, as part of a blue skies thinking exercise. But many were willing to swallow it, or to believe the reassurances about its provisional or temporary nature. And one could at least say that it worked theoretically, as they used to say about Soviet Communism.
But time has moved on, and nobody can claim it adds up today. It takes an enormous leap of the imagination to see Scotland joining the European Union on these terms. And the proposals for major reductions in the public sector won’t wash in the pandemic era, when even the Conservatives are making lavish commitments. Equally, how that was ever meant to square with promises of massive green investment was always baffling even before covid.
I’m not here to rehearse my ideological disagreements with the likes of Wilson. Indeed, Wilson doubtless knows perfectly well that circumstances have changed with Brexit concluded and an imminent economic collapse. You don’t have to be a Marxist to draw those conclusions.
The point is, if a referendum was on the horizon, solving these economic riddles would be top priority. And there’s no sign of them even being considered. Sturgeon, to her supporters and her critics, is a cautious, lawyerly politician: not the sort to bash ahead without knowing her brief in the style she bemoans in the Brexiteers, Donald Trump or even Alex Salmond. So is she likely to risk a referendum campaign with a currency, trade and spending plan that wouldn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny?
I would love to be wrong. But given the above, I can’t see a referendum coming this year. Indeed, unless there’s tangible progress after May, I’m struggling to see it happening in the next parliamentary term. And if that’s the case, it’s time we started asking what the SNP leadership will deliver on the domestic front.