This morning’s (20 August) front page of The National newspaper has met the remit of the publication; it accurately represents the beguiling contradictions of the Scottish National Party and wider independence movement.
Championing essentially two headlines, it foghorns in full colour the news that a Panelbase poll conducted for Business for Scotland has independence at 55 per cent. Beneath it, in black and white, another internal fight in the SNP, this time with around a quarter of party MPs in a showdown with its National Executive Committee over rule changes making it more difficult for them to challenge for Scottish Parliament seats (and, therefore, leadership of the party).
There seems to be a kind of Icarus effect in operation within the independence movement. As demonstrable support for independence increases, so do the stakes. So does the urgency of the political moment. Are we evolving towards independence, or does the conjuncture of Brexit, the pandemic, Boris Johnson and the crucifixion of Labour in the 2019 General Election, all combine to create the perfect political storm?
Will the SNP ever again have a leader with such broad appeal and authority? Such political figureheads are rare today, and there is no obvious successor in the party. These fears attack the central nervous system of the independence movement, even as they enervate it. In this same edition of the paper, Fergus Mutch joins a chorus warning of the dubious character of internal disputes. The leading faction in the party is keen to assert the irrational nature of tensions.
But still others in the movement are wary. Lead doesn’t transmute into gold by alchemy, and 55 per cent for independence doesn’t transform into an actual strategy to achieve independence, no matter how high the temperature rises. The SNP leadership have not demonstrated a coherent strategy – if it exists it does so in secret. Key items of independence campaign planning, such as the Growth Commission blueprint for post-independence economic arrangements, have been botched. Mandates have come and gone. The British state will look bad if they turn down another, but they are ruthless and have weathered far worse embarrassment.
The appearance of the desired prize will also act upon the SNP leadership and its calculations. Just weeks ago Nicola Sturgeon was still saying that any talk of the independence issue was ruled out so long as the pandemic commanded all her attention. This is no longer tenable, and she is gingerly probing the issue with cautious statements about reaching out to No voters. It’s the least directly ‘campaigning’ thing she can say while keeping a foot in the ring. And we all now await the focus, formulation and very text of what the forthcoming SNP manifesto has to say about independence. Interpretation is likely to be rife and of variable quality.
It isn’t even clear that Sturgeon wants the sudden lurch in expectations. The 2021 Scottish Elections are still months away, and the variables are free-wheeling. What if we experience a second wave of Covid-19? What will be the impact of the end of much state assistance in the economy? What plans are being brewed at Westminster to head-off the nationalist challenge? All these considerations and many more seem more important than the future of Scotland’s domestic opposition. Both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives are floating, rudderless.
For now the independence movement is home to all the most vital debates about the present and future of the country. The spike in independence support is animating them. Some would rather middle-manage them away, but this is impossible. Nobody said democracy wasn’t going to be an awful mess.
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