Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
by Andrew Whitaker
12 October 2016
Will indyref2 ever happen?

Will indyref2 ever happen?

SNP logo - Image credit: Holyrood Magazine

SNP election triumphs and the party’s ongoing domination of Scottish politics are things that rightly or wrongly are now simply facts of political life.

Like it or lump it, the SNP ascendency is akin to Labour’s domination at UK level for over a decade from the mid-1990s against a Tory party chastened by three consecutive defeats.

Then it was without modern precedent, for a party that in the 1980s was considered by friends and foes alike to be one of the world’s most awesome election-winning machines to have its fortunes so reversed, but that is what Tony Blair’s Labour party did.

This week, as SNP MSPs, councillors and activists gather in Glasgow for their annual conference, not only are they celebrating being the first party to win a third term in power under Scottish devolution, they’ve also presided over their vanquished Labour opponents slumping into a humiliating third place behind the Tories.

While Thatcher’s Tories never saw their Labour opposition relegated to third place, they did win thumping election victories in 1983 and 1987 that signified their dominance in a similar way to the SNP’s current position and Labour from 1997 to 2005, when Tony Blair won a third term, but saw his party’s majority substantially cut in the aftermath of the last Iraq war.

Thatcher in the 1980s sought to obliterate her opponents, strangling their remaining bases in local government, with the abolition of Labour-run authorities like the Greater London Council (GLC), and the scything of much of the significant powers held by local councils as a whole, entrenching Tory dominance for a time.       

While the SNP government has never shown any signs of a Thatcherite approach, there will be rallying cries as to how the party can rub Labour faces further in the dust by taking its one remaining jewel in the crown of Glasgow in next May’s local government elections.

With the 2017 local council elections being the last nationwide test of support for parties in Scotland until the next UK general election, it would be strange if there was not much talk about ousting Scottish Labour from its last bastion of support in local government.

However, it may be that the system of proportional representation for council elections might prevent a total meltdown or Kezia Dugdale’s party finishing in third place.

But for all the sound and fury about further moves towards a one-party Scottish state, something that has again has been close to being a fact of political life since Alex Salmond’s outright win in May 2011, how much further does this position of utter dominance take the party towards its holy grail of independence?

By the time the SNP’s proceedings get under way this Thursday in Glasgow, talk about the second anniversary of the independence referendum on 18 September 2014 will have been done almost to death, although that surely won’t stop it being aired by speakers on the conference floor, as well as at assorted fringe meetings.

On the face of it, conditions could not be more favourable for a second independence referendum from an SNP point of view, with a third election win on the bounce for the party, an unpopular Tory government in power at Westminster and the very real prospect of Scotland being pulled out of the EU against its will.  

The UK electorate’s vote for Brexit shocked most observers and while the SNP leadership stuck to a consistent and principled stance of saying it would be wrong for Scotland to be pulled out against its will, few will have genuinely expected the result that played out on 23 June.  

The decisive vote for Remain in Scotland, and the narrow backing for Brexit among the UK electorate as whole, provided almost a scripted dramatic stand-off that the SNP leadership has become so adept at.

In what appeared to many almost like a scene from The West Wing, the cult US drama about a left-leaning Democrat US president, Nicola Sturgeon called a dramatic press conference in which she said the SNP government would now begin preparing legislation for a second referendum on independence in order to preserve Scotland’s place in the EU and stave off the “democratic outrage” of Scots being pulled out of the EU despite voting to remain.

It seemed fate had dealt the SNP a really wild card in that while the party had mounted a strong campaign in favour of Remain, the unwanted scenario had presented it with what many must have assumed was a golden chance to hold a second independence referendum, despite not committing to such a vote in May’s Holyrood election.

A senior SNP politician, speaking the weekend after the Brexit vote, suggested the party’s politicians were under instructions to make ‘mood music’ about having a second independence referendum to gauge what the feeling was in the nation.

Much was made by Sturgeon that the prospectus that Scots had voted on against independence back in September 2014 was on the basis that the only secure way of staying in the EU was to vote No, given the disputes about whether or not an independent Scotland would be allowed in the EU.

Undoubtedly, the SNP hoped that the Brexit vote would be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ for many centre-left Scots who voted No in 2014, but hate the idea of being ruled by a post-Brexit, Tory-dominated Westminster.

Again, it would read like something straight from a script if one were to have made a series of films about the rise and rise of the SNP during the last decade.

But while there may still be a sequel of independence II, the opinion polls, whatever the question about their reliability, have failed to show much of a shift towards the Yes side.

The Brexit bounce Sturgeon and her colleagues had hoped for simply hasn’t happened for the SNP, and the party’s later summer/early autumn launch of a pro-independence campaign seemed somewhat of a low-key offensive.

Even last month’s demonstrations marking the second anniversary of the 2014 independence referendum seemed rather muted, with attendance on them appearing to be largely confined to a ‘hardcore’ or at least ‘ultra-convinced diehard’ Yes supporters.    

Of course, given the extreme unpredictability of recent times, it would be a reckless punter who would bet against things shifting again, and there has been an upsurge in support for independence for one reason or another.

Regardless, Sturgeon and the SNP’s big beasts of John Swinney and Angus Robertson face something of a conundrum as to where, and how, to take things to the next level.

Sturgeon remains hugely popular with the Scottish electorate, and even many Labour voters probably find her much less divisive then her predecessor, Alex Salmond.

Polling suggesting that Ruth Davidson and Theresa May are more popular than Sturgeon should probably be taken with a pinch of salt, certainly in the long term.  

The Tories, now the second biggest party at Holyrood, do not pose any realistic threat to the SNP as a potential replacement party of government, primarily because they are so closely tied to the coattails of a right-wing Westminster Tory government responsible for years of austerity and policies like the bedroom tax.

In that sense, the relegation of Labour to third place at Holyrood strengthens the SNP, whatever the supposed personal popularity of Ruth Davidson, as there is little appetite for Westminster Tory-style policies on grammar schools and austerity in Scotland.

Despite narrowly failing to win an overall majority again at Holyrood and having some local difficulties over issues such as ‘named person’ and the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which could now be repealed, the SNP government is firmly in charge when it comes to getting its way on most issues.

The SNP, despite losing its overall majority, did not experience anything like the dip in support that Tony Blair’s New Labour did at its third election win at the 2005 general election, when the party’s Commons majority fell to 66 compared to 167 the previous time the PM went to the country.

Although it could happen, there’s no obvious sign of the SNP becoming tired in government and prone to endless mishaps and scandals as happened towards the last lengthy period of Tory rule under John Major’s final government.

The renowned SNP discipline also seems as strong as ever, with no hints of any spats, including over the holding or timing of a second independence referendum.       

There’s also the fact that by the time the six Green MSPs are factored in, there remains an independence majority in the Scottish Parliament.    

So what then will be the SNP’s game plan and what will be in the minds of the SNP’s top political brains at what will, as always, be a carefully choreographed, successful conference with masses of adoration from the Nationalist faithful?

With polls showing support for independence at 47 per cent, what can the SNP do to get the level of support up? If Brexit can’t reach those parts, what can?

Having said all this, it’s business as usual for the SNP amid all the Brexit turbulence. Ever since the SNP came to power in 2007 with a majority of just one, the ‘long-game’ strategy has been utterly dominant within the party, with its so-called ‘fundamentalist’ wing long since marginalised.

Alex Salmond even admitted to Holyrood magazine that a referendum in the early days of the SNP government had not been part of the SNP’s game plan and had Gordon Brown’s Labour government at Westminster pursued the then-Labour leader Wendy Alexander’s ‘Bring It On’ strategy, the 2014 independence vote may have never happened.

Salmond, speaking this summer, said that “it would have seized the initiative from us” and “it’s not obvious what we would have done”, in terms of how the SNP’s ‘gradualist’ strategy for holding an independence referendum with the potential for victory almost sunk.

In a sense, the low key and rather muted drive for independence evident since the 2016 Brexit vote is reminiscent of the SNP government’s first period in office, when much independence mood music was played, but when few people ever felt a referendum was on the cards.

Sturgeon could even run the risk of re-running the ‘National Conversation’ – the mass public consultation on independence that Salmond’s minority government presided over from 2007 to 2011, which ended up being fairly limp.

That, combined with the publication of a bill for an independence referendum in early 2010, which was presented straight to the Scottish electorate, due to the unionist opposition parties’ threat to vote it down, all added to an image of a campaign that was essentially preaching to the converted.

Of course, a critical difference now is that independence is backed by almost half of Scots, a significant increase on the third who regularly told pollsters they favoured leaving the UK when the SNP was a minority government, and even the early period of Salmond’s majority administration.

Another advantage is also that the SNP still has the numbers to get a referendum through the Scottish Parliament, assuming the pro-independence Greens went along with it, which they probably would.

It’s very much a double-edged sword for the SNP, as the conditions for a referendum appear at first glance to be tailor-made for it, or at least workable.

Perhaps there’s simply a limited appetite for another lengthy independence referendum so soon after the last one, with most Scots more concerned about issues such as the rising cost of living – and wages not matching it – job insecurity and housing issues than anything else.

To move towards a third referendum after the tumultuous summer EU and 2014 independence ones, may simply just be a complete turn-off for many and fill others with dread, or at least a sense of impending fatigue.

The 2011 landslide win for the SNP made an independence referendum inevitable from the day Alex Salmond stood on the lawn outside Edinburgh’s Prestonfield House Hotel and delivered his speech, saying: “Our eyes are on the future – and the dreams that can be realised.”      

But in a sense, the unexpected sheer scale of that 2011 win meant the SNP had to deliver a referendum when it was not necessarily ready for it, even with the mammoth build-up to the vote and what became dubbed a ‘neverendum’ campaign.

In 2011, it was only a year into the Tory-Lib Dem government’s time in office, with real austerity only just starting to bite.

Talk of EU withdrawal was then confined to UKIP and sections of the Tory right, although even in their wildest dreams such Eurosceptic figures could surely not have imagined that the UK would be on its way out of the pan-European body it had been a member of since the early 1970s.

Even with the enhanced devolution delivered to Holyrood since the independence referendum, Scotland is still ruled by a Tory-led Westminster in key areas, despite the fact that for the fifth election in a row just one MP from Scotland was elected on a ticket for the UK ruling party.    

Added to that, there’s the fact that SNP MPs make up almost all of Scotland’s Westminster representatives, the first time a nationalist party has won an election for a constituent part of the UK since Sinn Fein in the early 1920s prior to the creation of the Irish Free State.

So why then, given these conditions that read like a perfect storm building for independence, has backing for the Yes side increased by little more than a few percentage points since 18 September 2014?

Of course, the SNP could just press on as it is, governing in much the same way as it has for the last nine years and hope that circumstances change enough to make support for independence grow, whether its ongoing Tory rule and associated austerity or even that Scotland’s demographics change, with younger voters more attracted towards the idea of an independent Scotland than older people.

There’s nothing to suggest the SNP’s firm grip on power will be loosened in any way, much less that it will be defeated at the next Holyrood election.

It may well be that the fallout from Brexit, with the UK Government refusing to commit to retaining employment rights that emanate from Brussels after Brexit, will make a material difference.

Should the Brexit process go to plan for Theresa May, changes in areas like employment law could come into effect within two or three years – just over half-way into the SNP government’s current term of office.

Perhaps the SNP leadership has its eyes on that period for a fresh independence referendum, particularly if it looks like the Tories are on course to retain power at Westminster, something that we should not assume is a given, whatever the opinion polls currently say.

Sturgeon has been at great pains to state that whether another independence referendum takes place is purely a matter for the Scottish electorate and that there would have to be significant support over a fairly lengthy period of time for a second vote before one could be agreed.

The First Minister seems almost certain to press ahead with the ‘gradualist’ approach, and one of almost letting things play out, while continuing to make mood music for independence and taking every opportunity to state that Scotland and the rest of the UK are now politically divergent nations.

While it’s difficult to imagine support for independence slipping to pre-2014 levels, there are of course risks with such as a strategy for the SNP.

It may well find that the normal laws of politics, ‘that nothing lasts forever’, apply to it too, just like other parties, although for many years it has appeared that was not the case.

A waning of popularity for the SNP could have a negative impact on its goal of independence, particularly if there is any shift in opinion either leftwards, rightwards or even on the constitution.

What also if the SNP simply misses its chance and waits too long to call a second independence referendum, misjudging the feelings and timings?

By the same token, Sturgeon will know that a defeat in a second referendum would bury the chances, perhaps forever, of an independent Scotland, or at least in the lifetime of the current leadership.

SNP cabinet heavyweights associated with the Salmond era such as Kenny MacAskill and Alex Neil have warned recently against rushing into a second independence vote for such reasons.

Whatever SNP supporters may say and think, there is no such thing as an inevitable stage in political history developing towards independence.

Sturgeon and all the SNP’s other leading strategic thinkers will know that the party could not go into a second referendum campaign with some of the perceived problems of issues like currency and the disputed claims about whether Scotland could retain the pound.  

Given that Sturgeon has already said the SNP will prepare legislation for another independence referendum as the Brexit process rumbles along, is there a possibility that the SNP leader will in tandem with that prepare a fresh blueprint for independence?

Sturgeon has already given a so-called growth commission, under the convenership of Andrew Wilson, a lobbyist and former SNP MSP, the task of examining the central economic questions facing an independent Scotland.

Although it may not come in time for this week’s SNP conference, a second white paper may be in the offing, although putting forward a fresh case for independence would inevitably bring a fresh onslaught from supporters of the Union.

However, at least for now, the smart money is on the SNP playing its long-game strategy in terms of the fallout and impact of Brexit on Scotland, and perhaps what chances there are, or not, of dislodging the Tories at the 2020 general election.

It’s highly unlikely we’ll get any answers to all this in Glasgow this week as the SNP gathers for its post-election conference.

But as the party prepares to enter a full decade in power, there will probably be some delegates privately wondering when their day will come in terms of the SNP making the most of its unprecedented dominance of Scottish politics and taking its supporters towards the promised land of independence.

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top