The Salmond fall-out, trans rights and factionalism will be hindrances in the campaign for independence
If you lose your head, it’s all over. Not quite what one Scot (who was at the time an Egyptian-born Spaniard), said to another (though that one was American), but it might as well have been. Wise words to an immortal; wiser still to a politician – and ones that Scottish nationalists would do well to reflect on.
The SNP has dominated Scottish politics for the last 6½ years and was pre-eminent for another 7 years before that*. Even today, after heading Scotland’s government since Tony Blair was Prime Minister, the SNP not only sits atop Scottish opinion polls but does so with a larger list-vote share than the next two parties combined; in some polls, more than the next three. It’s a long time to rule the roost; longer still to be so dominant.
Yet not all is well within the Scottish nationalist camp. The prospect of a fourth win and a renewed outright majority (or at the minimum a pro-Independence majority with the Scottish Greens), should be the launchpad for demanding a second referendum and either seeing that demand acceded to – putting independence again within touching distance (particularly given polls consistently give Independence a regular, if generally modest, lead) – or refused, which could legitimately be used as a national grievance to be nursed.
However, just as the road to ultimate victory looked open, the SNP has not only developed a severe case of factionalism but one of the issues on which it’s divided is trans rights. Anyone with some familiarity with either Scottish nationalists or trans activists will be unsurprised to hear that their differences have not been settled over a cup of tea. Either issue can be, by itself, more than capable of causing people to lose their heads; together, the brew is toxic (and they’re not the only ingredients).
What’s really deepened a split into a crisis is the sacking from the SNP’s Westminster front bench of Joanna Cherry. Cherry has long been a rival to both Sturgeon and Ian Blackford, a supporter of Alex Salmond, and a vocal opponent of women’s rights being overridden by trans rights. She also authored a controversial article last month, suggesting that if Westminster denied a second referendum to the Scottish electorate other routes should be available, noting that Ireland didn’t have a referendum in 1918 (no – it had a war of independence); the point being an implicit criticism of Sturgeon’s lack of a Plan B other than to wait, if Boris says ‘no’.
Her sacking could well then have been justified for any number of reasons and in normal circumstances, a storm in a Westminster tea-cup. But times are not normal. The trial of a former First Minister on charges of attempted rape and sexual assault was not normal, and the consequences of the failure of that prosecution (on 12 charges he was found not guilty, with one not proven) have created a similarly abnormal political landscape.
That top-level politicians like Cherry are willing to go in to bat for Salmond is of itself revealing. The former leader’s fall from public approval has been on a scale that only Tony Blair or Nick Clegg could match. Having once achieved the impossible and won an outright majority in Holyrood, under PR and against the eternally-dominant Labour machine, he’s now less popular in Scotland than Boris Johnson. Politicians do not usually put their careers on the line for a reviled old has-been – so if they are doing, that suggests they think there’s more to it than old loyalties or current enmities.
We need to tread carefully here because there are multiple inquiries ongoing into who might have known what, when, and whether decisions were properly taken and power properly exercised – questions complicated by the fact that the SNP’s Chief Executive is Nicola Sturgeon’s husband. The precise details of what has the potential to become a major scandal if the allegations of improper political interference or lying to parliament have substance can be found elsewhere. For our purposes, we need only know that the potential for that scandal is there, and lines are already drawn to try to force an answer one way or the other.
Into that already-charged atmosphere, the party has not only embraced the political grenade of full trans rights advocacy but did so via dodgy procedural dealing. Most rights clash with other rights and trans ones do perhaps more than most, with women’s rights most affected. Unfortunately, the balance and moderation needed to strike a fair compromise are not typical of that particular debate. On the other hand, if you want to weaponise an issue against someone vocal for (physical-XX chromosome) women’s rights – someone like Cherry, for example – this would certainly be one to use.
The big risk here is that the SNP’s activist base could become detached from its natural support. While most people will accept social tolerance and respect, questions about single-sex spaces or events are difficult and getting the answers wrong, potentially very damaging – and simple answers will be wrong. Politically, for the SNP even to be infighting on this issue rather than ones of more direct concern is likely to be damaging for the Party and the wider independence movement.
(As an aside, this isn’t just an issue for the SNP. All left-of-centre parties run the same risk of being lobbied into absolutist positions that many weakly-aligned voters who might give those parties a hearing will find very off-putting. Labour and the Lib Dems should trad very carefully).
Where does this leave Scotland? For the moment, don’t expect too much impact. This will likely be a slow-burn story, particularly as Covid dominates everything in the media for now, and the Salmond-Sturgeon split is a complex and, at times, tawdry affair. With no smoking gun and no simple attack line, it will stay in the politics pages for the time being.
But there are still three months to the election, plenty time enough for things to change. I don’t expect massive shifts in opinion – belief on independence or the Union is too firmly set for that – but the SNP may find the going harder than they have done in a long time. I think they’ll fall short of that majority they aspire to.
* Some will object to that assertion on the basis that Labour still comfortably ‘won’ the 2010 UK election in Scotland. So it did. But the SNP won the 2007 Holyrood and local elections (just), the 2009 European elections, the 2011 Holyrood and 2012 local elections (by landslides), and 2014 European election. The 2010 result was the exception rather than the rule during a period when a transition of power was already taking place.