Analysis: SNP's drive for independence sees Scotland stuck in constitutional loop

30 November 2021, 11:06 | Updated: 30 November 2021, 11:16

Nicola Sturgeon is "stuck in a loop", writes Gina Davidson.
Nicola Sturgeon is "stuck in a loop", writes Gina Davidson. Picture: Alamy
Gina Davidson

By Gina Davidson

Just 10 weeks ago the SNP members held a four-day virtual conference at which Nicola Sturgeon thanked them for her party’s victory in the May elections and told them that her over-riding priority was handling the Covid pandemic.

Only when that was in the past, she said, would the question of independence be tackled once more. But she promised, a second referendum would be held.

Fast-forward to today and Nicola Sturgeon closed another SNP virtual four-day conference with a promise to get Scotland through the pandemic - particularly in the light of the new variant - but that by spring she will “initiate the process necessary to enable a referendum before the end of 2023” - the deadline she has set herself to deliver on another constitutional vote.

If it feels like déjà vu, that’s because it is. Much has been written recently about how Scotland is stuck in a constitutional loop, endlessly waiting for a second referendum and its outcome before it can move on any of the pressing issues facing Scots, but the fact is that the SNP is stuck too.

Ian Blackford says Scottish independence debate will reignite soon

Members know that Boris Johnson need do nothing to bend to Nicola Sturgeon’s will and grant a Section 30 Order which would allow the same process for a referendum to take place as the “gold standard” event of 2014 as the First Minister has described it. It makes no odds to him that the pro-independence Scottish Greens have been co-opted into government to make things stable for Nicola Sturgeon.

In her speech she described him as “actively eroding the power of our democratically elected Scottish Parliament” and holding democracy in “disdain”. Her disdain of him is clear - what isn’t is why she believes appeals to the Prime Minister to “respect democracy” and “let the people decide” - again - on independence will work.

He knows he’s unpopular in Scotland - how could it get worse for him? While Nicola Sturgeon rails that his position is undemocratic and against the will of the Scottish people he need only point to the 2014 outcome and the opinion polls which now put independence eighth on the list of Scots’ priorities.

Virtual conferences are strange beasts. It is impossible to take the temperature of a party when there are no delegates to speak with, when fringe events take place via zoom with typed questions only, when speakers to motions are uninterruptible from the floor. But all of that helps a leadership which knows that it still has no real answer to the big question of just how it will secure a legal referendum in 2023.

Six cases of Omicron variant reported in Scotland

Will the SNP membership be happy with hearing the same promises and pledges from their leader and others in the party hierarchy? It’s hard for them to do otherwise - unless they fancy, as some have already done, jumping ship to the more anarchic Alba Party.

Will they also be happy with a shift from “it’s Scotland’s oil” to “it’s Scotland’s oil and it’s staying in Scotland’s ground” as one former MEP declared, without any real debate on what replaces the black stuff as the economic driver of an independent Scotland? It’s hard to judge from a distance, but the grumblings from those normally loyal members in the north east will have been difficult for the hierarchy to hear.

It’s hardly surprising then that minds have begun to focus on a post-Sturgeon SNP; a post-Sturgeon Scottish Government. She herself has dropped hints that she and husband Peter Murrell are already talking about life beyond front-line politics, and her desire to network hard at CoP26 could well have been her viewing the UN as a potential new employer.

Hackles were raised however when asked during the conference if she would lead her party into the next election in five years time. At first she laughed it off as wishful thinking on the part of her opponents who just can’t beat her, but the line of questioning is obviously beginning to rile. “It’s a preposterous thing,” she exclaimed. “I‘m seven months into a five year term.

“I have lots to do. I will think about the next election when I get close to the next election. I intend to fulfil the mandate I won and be First Minister for the term of this parliament.”

Quite how she will do that in terms of the independence question is no clearer after her speech today. But what’s for sure is the internal SNP battle to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the SNP in 2026 will now have begun in earnest.