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Scottish independence: Has the SNP run out of road?

Scottish independence: Has the SNP run out of road?

Unveiling his new strategy on achieving Scottish independence, Humza Yousaf suggested the momentum is with the SNP. “We are in touching distance of achieving our goal,” he told party members. “Independence is within reach.”

Yousaf wants to use the next general election to “mobilise” support for constitutional change and force the UK Government to capitulate under the weight of votes cast for SNP candidates and either agree to indyref2 or open negotiations on separation. An envoy to Brussels is also planned, as is a written constitution for a sovereign state. But poll ratings suggest his party faces a tough fight and a raft of its serving MPs have said they will not stand again. 

Meanwhile, there’s confusion about how exactly Yousaf can use that election to prove Scots want to end the Union, and questions about whether the SNP’s drive for independence has run out of road. “Let’s assume that the SNP did pretty well at the next election – what’s going to happen then?,” asks journalist Andy Collier, a former speechwriter for Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

“You’re going to say ‘we’ve got a mandate here for independence’ and they’re going to say ‘fuck off’. So you say, ‘we’re going to have a referendum then’, and they say ‘fuck off’. That’s the problem. I can’t see what the direction is.

“Where does he go? Where can anybody go when they’re so boxed in by what Scotland can and can’t do?”

With just three months of leadership under his belt, Yousaf has acted quickly and decisively on independence, installing Jamie Hepburn as the Scottish Government’s first Minister for Independence and calling the one-day members’ convention in Dundee at which he stated his three-point plan. A referendum, agreed with Westminster, remains his first choice; a revamped version of Nicola Sturgeon’s “de facto” referendum plan is his second. 

The reason we exist is to break up the UK and make Scotland an independent country again

Sturgeon announced her strategy almost a year to the day before Yousaf took to the stage in Dundee. Appearing before the Scottish Parliament, she’d declared 19 October 2023 as her preferred indyref2 date and told MSPs that the lord advocate was to go to the UK’s Supreme Court to establish categorically whether the devolved legislature had the power to put that question to the public without Westminster approval. Refusal, she said, would mean “the general election will be a de facto referendum”, telling the chamber that “either way, the people of Scotland will have their say”.

It took just five months for the court to reject the Scottish Government’s case and confirm in law that authority over constitutional referenda lies in London alone. 

Sturgeon’s back-up “de facto” plan had come as a surprise to her party’s rank and file, and indeed to all but those MPs and MSPs closest to her, and there was immediate debate about what it might mean. Could a first-past-the-post general election really deliver a clear message on the Scottish electorate’s constitutional preference? Would that message hinge on vote share or seats won, and would it include ballot box backing for other independence-supporting parties like the Scottish Greens and Alba? What kind of margin would be needed to prove that Scots wanted to leave the Union? The answer from Sturgeon’s camp was that “50 per cent plus one” would be the margin – an answer that did little to satisfy sceptics.

One year and a leadership change later, the debate persists. Yousaf, who said he was “not wedded” to the de facto idea during his leadership challenge, has unveiled an indy plan which is the same but different. “Vote SNP for Scotland to become an independent country” will be the first line of the party’s manifesto and a “partnership agreement” to prepare for the transfer of powers to Edinburgh will be drawn up if the strategy pays off. A legally-binding referendum remains the party’s plan A, he said, but “mobilising” support through the election can “break the logjam with Westminster”.

Yousaf, who had paused his Caird Hall speech to talk to a heckler, looked confident and sounded assured, but the speech left hanging the same questions that Sturgeon’s did and Scottish Conservative constitution spokesman Donald Cameron branded it a “turbo-charged version” of Sturgeon’s plan, but one which “set the bar even lower”.

That came after a Scotland Tonight interview in which Hepburn was pressed on the detail. The “settled will” of the people “will ultimately be determined through the ballot box”, Hepburn said. Could that be 60 per cent, he was asked? Yes, the minister said, “there or thereabouts”. But even in its 56-seat landslide of 2015, the SNP secured only 49.9 per cent of the vote – nowhere near that 60 per cent threshold. Scottish Conservatives chairman Craig Hoy accused the SNP of “shifting the goalposts” and called on the party to drop the “relentless obsession with breaking up the UK and instead focus on the people’s real priorities”. Alex Cole-Hamilton, leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, said the “so-called plan is dissolving into gibberish” and “no two nationalists seem to interpret it the same way”.

Pete Wishart, Scotland’s longest-serving MP, had by then said “50 per cent-plus of the popular vote” was still the aim; Yousaf’s team had said winning more seats than rivals would do it. 
Edinburgh University’s Professor James Mitchell said the SNP’s message was “steeped in ambiguity and incoherence”, a charge denied by its president, Michael Russell. “A lot of people... seem to think this is confusing or complicated,” he told The National. “I think they need to look at this and realise that’s a fairly normal and democratic thing to do.”

Scotland is still almost divided down the middle

Aberdeen SNP councillor Kairin van Sweeden, who attended the convention, says detractors have missed the point, and that hard policy will not be decided until the party’s autumn conference. For her, the main take-aways from the event are two-fold, and they’re simple – it’s about that top-line manifesto commitment, she says, and the empowerment of members to help set strategy. “In the past five years or so people, people have been confused about what we stand for,” she told Holyrood. “The reason we exist is to break up the UK and make Scotland an independent country again. If we put that on the top line of our manifesto, then we’ll know if enough people feel like that.”

On arguments over the suitability of a general election to settle the matter, van Sweeden says the SNP’s hands are tied by the electoral system and the devolution settlement. “That’s the system we find ourselves in as one of the smaller countries in this union,” she says. “The result is more legitimised if we make it very clear what our purpose is.”

Van Sweeden, a climate activist on the left of the party, will join the party’s “summer of independence” push to win more people over to Yes. Promoting that, SNP depute leader Keith Brown has said the public’s “appetite for independence is growing stronger each day”. However, polling expert Sir John Curtice says that, at an average of 48 per cent in the polls, Yes support is “little different from what it has been for most of the time since the last Holyrood election”.

“Scotland is still almost divided down the middle on whether it should stay in the UK or become an independent country,” according to Curtice, and “it is far from certain that the Yes campaign would win any ballot held in the immediate future”. 

“The latest polls suggest that only about seven in 10 of those who currently back independence are minded to vote for the SNP at the next Westminster election, well down on the nearly nine in 10 who did so in 2021,” the University of Strathclyde psephologist explained in a piece for the BBC. “Following its divisive leadership contest, the party is struggling to fend off a challenge from a revived Labour party that is on average just six points behind in the polls and might, according to Panelbase, now be neck and neck with the SNP. In truth the most immediate challenge facing the SNP is whether it can regain the confidence of those who already support independence.”

That’s before the issue of candidates is considered. The SNP can be expected to contest every constituency in Scotland, but several of its current Westminster cohort have ruled themselves out for re-selection. This includes ex-Westminster group leader Ian Blackford, former deputy Westminster leader Stewart Hosie, one-time SNP treasurer Douglas Chapman, and Lanark and Hamilton East MP Angela Crawley. Selection begins this week, and winning candidates will have to contend with local boundary changes which may affect their ability to win votes. 

It could take generations – the Tories aren’t going to do it and Starmer has made it perfectly clear he’s going to be just as intractable

Buoyed by those more favourable poll results – and others for England – Scottish Labour already has many of its candidates in place and its UK leader Keir Starmer has increased his visits to Scotland as the party eyes a return to first place. He’s promised to base a new green energy company north of the border, and continues to resist any suggestion that the party should end its opposition to indyref2, as does Tory PM Rishi Sunak. And so whether the Tories or Labour hold the keys to Number 10 at the next time of asking, Yousaf’s challenge remains largely the same.

The relationship between Edinburgh and London has long been fractious, but with the latter’s block to the former’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill and Deposit Return Scheme, it has reached a new low. Collier says this “moribund, constantly-agitated state” has a bearing on Yousaf’s likelihood of success, if indeed the SNP gets its general election victory. “You’re appealing to the better nature of Labour and the Tories. Where does that one go?”

The Supreme Court challenge was a “critical moment” that “took the ability from the Scottish Parliament to actually run its own referendum” by forcing the justices to issue a decision, he says. “Donald Dewar boxed this all up in the Scotland Act. He knew what he was doing. It was done exactly to stop this kind of scenario arising.

“Humza has got some very good legal minds, his thinking in many ways is right, he has to do something to manage the party. He’s a fundamentally decent guy, and I think that is really coming over well. But where does he go? Where can anybody go when they’re so boxed in by what Scotland can and can’t do? It’s bolted down, isn’t it? It could take generations – the Tories aren’t going to do it and Starmer has made it perfectly clear he’s going to be just as intractable. If the Lib Dems get another whiff of power in coalition, the one bargaining chip they are not going to put on the table is Scottish independence.”

Dr Kirsty Hughes, the former director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, says Yousaf is “aiming to give some big picture answers to moving towards independence”, which is “fine as far as it goes”. “What is really needed is substance if support for independence is to increase,” she says. The Scottish Government has issued its fourth independence position paper, on the case for a written constitution, and further papers are expected. “If there are serious proposals and analysis on economic and political benefits of independence over time, how transition will work – economically, politically, in moving to EU membership – then there can be serious debate,” Hughes says. 

“This strategy seems like a place card, and jumping ahead before that substance is there.”

The EU has other priorities – neither the UK nor Scotland are priorities

The Times reported that “EU sources” have rejected the idea of an envoy, saying Brussels “deals only with the official governments of third countries”. Hughes told Holyrood it is “not clear” how Yousaf’s envoy would operate, and so this may not offer a chance to take the independence debate forward. “There is already a head of the Scottish Government office in Brussels and a team there,” she says.

“If the envoy’s remit is purely independence then Commission officials won’t meet with someone to discuss what they will see as internal constitutional matters of a third country. And meeting with some diplomats or MEPs to outline independence aims doesn’t look like a full-time job. 

“If the context is an SNP general election win and a row with the UK Government over whether that’s a mandate for independence, then EU institutions will steer well clear of that. And the EU has other priorities – neither the UK nor Scotland are priorities. If a Scottish Government envoy has a broad remit and wants to engage on climate change, biodiversity, education and culture and so forth, then doors will open more easily, but the Scottish Government’s Brussels office already does that, so a more political envoy role might work but it would be difficult to pull off.”

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