In addition, I was elected as FM on a clear manifesto commitment re #scotref. The PM is not yet elected by anyone.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) March 14, 2017
Her window of opportunity could be closing
The SNP exists to achieve independence for Scotland. This simple fact shouldn’t really need stating but keeping it at the forefront of our minds is crucial to understanding why what’s going on is going on, and how events might pan out in future.
As with other nationalist-seperationist movements across the world, including UKIP within the UK, independence is an ideological objective; one that ranks so highly that other considerations pale by comparison. Short-term pain is justified by long-term gain. To the extent that short-term pain needs to be minimised, it’s a matter of the tactics and politics necessary to gain the support that will launch independence but otherwise only a secondary consideration.
Which is why Sturgeon is going back on the once-in-a-generation/lifetime expectation given during the last referendum. Salmond, when he was making that claim, was no doubt doing so in part so as to pressurise doubtful Yes voters to stick with the cause for fear that they might otherwise miss the bus but also because he probably believed that it would indeed be a once-in-a-generation event, at best; that the SNP wouldn’t have the opportunity to call another vote for many a year.
Given the extent of the SNP’s dominance north of the border, that might sound strange but it’s not. For a start, it was far from obvious that the SNP would continue their hegemony if they lost. Losing the 1979 referendum preceded the party entering the doldrums for most of the 1980s, and that despite a more legitimate sense of grievance than this time. Labour certainly wouldn’t have acted as they did had they known how events would turn out. Without Salmond and with potential division over the way forward, with uncertainty over both the 2015 and 2016 elections, who could have known in advance when another opportunity for the SNP might come?
And that opportunity only exists because of the maths in the Scottish parliament: the crucial factor that hasn’t been much mentioned this last week. It isn’t even certain now that Sturgeon will be able to call a referendum: the SNP doesn’t have a majority in Holyrood and while the Greens might well support IndyRef2, or at least abstain (which would be good enough for the SNP), their compliance can’t be taken for granted.
Therein lies the rub, and the reason for assuming that 2014 would be a once-in-a-long-time chance: the Scottish system makes winning an outright majority very hard. To have done it once and to have come close to doing so again were extraordinary achievements but no-one – and particularly the SNP – can assume they’ll pull off a hat-trick in 2021. Even a small slip in support would drop them back to the 2007 situation: able to govern but not to impose. Fourteen years in office leaves a legacy and it’d be a highly optimistic strategist to assume that electoral gravity can be defied so long. Indeed, as mentioned, the likely thinking pre-2014 was that it couldn’t even be defied this long.
Hence why Sturgeon is agitating so strongly now. Yes, there is a sense of a win-win in that if the vote is denied, it’s good propaganda for a grievance to be nurtured into the future but that’s consolation material. The more pressing factor is that her window of opportunity remains surprisingly open and Brexit provides a saleable reason for calling a second vote. Sure, it’d be messy and rooted in confusion but those can be fertile conditions for constitutional change, and launching a new country is constitutional change on the biggest scale. Carpe diem, and all that.