Not for the first time in my life, I find myself roughly equidistant between Sturgeon loyalists and the First Minister's most trenchant critics in the wake of her big announcement. That's probably the most realistic and sensible place to be, but it's not always the most comfortable, because there aren't all that many people here with me. For days, the comments section of this blog has been full of suggestions that nothing has really changed and that the Scottish Government are continuing to act in bad faith by kicking the independence can ever-further down the road. So I thought it might be an idea to sort through those criticisms and separate out the ones that are well-founded from the ones that seem to be nothing more than unjust knee-jerk reactions.
"Angus Robertson's comment that independence will be 'the key issue' in the SNP campaign for the 2024 election suggests that the notion of a plebiscite election is a confidence trick - SNP supporters will be duped into thinking they're fighting a de facto referendum while the unionist media will hear nothing more than a vague Independence Is Quite A Nice Idea Isn't It."
I must admit I was concerned when I heard the phraseology Angus Robertson was using in media interviews. However, Nicola Sturgeon is the leader of the SNP, not Angus Robertson, and her own language has been absolutely unmistakeable. See, for example, her tweet reacting to Boris Johnson's refusal to grant a Section 30 order -
Just received this from Johnson (one of his last acts as PM?). To be clear, Scotland will have the opportunity to choose independence - I hope in a referendum on 19 October 2023 but, if not, through a general election. Scottish democracy will not be a prisoner of this or any PM. pic.twitter.com/EAgIVvEuoc— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) July 6, 2022
There's no real space for creative ambiguity in those words - she's suggesting that if a referendum isn't possible, Scotland will be able to choose independence in the general election in exactly the same way that it would have been able to do in a referendum. So I don't think we need to worry about tricksy language at this stage. What might be a more reasonable concern is Ms Sturgeon's long track record of repeatedly going back on her word on independence strategy, so it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that she could use crystal-clear language now but not actually follow through on it when the time comes. However, she surely must realise that the patience of many SNP stalwarts would be pushed beyond breaking-point if she did that, possibly triggering a wave of resignations from the party and perhaps defections to Alba. So there's a huge incentive for her not to backtrack this time.
"Sturgeon is conning people into thinking there will be a referendum in October 2023!"
To me this is a really odd criticism to still be making, because the whole point of her announcement was to finally drop the pretence that there will definitely be a referendum next year. The pretence was certainly there before the announcement, and we were absolutely right to call it out for the absurdity that it was, but it's not there anymore. What we were really criticising her for was not having a credible backstop in the event that a referendum is struck down by the Supreme Court, but she's now introduced a credible backstop in the form of a plebiscite election in 2024. So until and unless she goes back on her word, I think we should just give credit where credit's due and acknowledge that she's finally done exactly what we've been asking her to do for years.
"Sturgeon has needlessly given the unionists a massive Christmas present by setting the target for victory in a plebiscite election far too high. She should be saying we only need a majority of seats, not a majority of votes."
I'm not sure that stacks up. If there's a battle for hearts and minds on the question of whether Scotland can become an independent country on the basis of 35% or 40% of the vote (enough to win a majority of seats under first-past-the-post), or whether 50% should be required, it's obvious that the public will side with the unionists on that point - as indeed will other countries. The pro-independence camp would be left looking a bit dodgy, as if we were trying to swindle our way to our goal without a proper mandate. So it's probably best to make a virtue out of necessity by voluntarily acknowledging from the outset that only a majority of votes will do. Arguably we could fudge the issue for the time being by saying "winning the election" would constitute a mandate without specifying what "winning" means. But I'm not sure that would be sustainable as the election approaches.
"Sturgeon has undermined the independence cause by failing to appoint a Lord Advocate who is prepared to unequivocally state that a referendum is legal without a Section 30 order."
That is absolutely fair comment. It would have been perfectly possible to find a potential Lord Advocate with a favourable interpretation of the legal position, and it seems almost negligent that this didn't happen. There are only really two possibilities: either a) Nicola Sturgeon was trying to sabotage her own chances of delivering her promise of an independence referendum, or b) she had priorities other than independence at the forefront of her mind when she appointed Dorothy Bain, and simply didn't consider the consequences of what she was doing. I'm fairly sure the answer is b), but that's more than bad enough. If I was in Ms Sturgeon's shoes, I'd be tempted to rectify the error by hurriedly installing a new Lord Advocate - there would be a hit to be taken as a result of doing that, but in the long run it would probably be worth it.
"The SNP will make a Yes vote harder to achieve by insisting upon a much less broadly-based campaign than in 2014, with Alba and lots of other 'undesirables' left out in the cold completely."
I can't disagree with that, and it's a dreadful indictment of the intolerance of the modern SNP (and indeed of the modern Scottish Green Party). But that doesn't get the rest of us off the hook. If the Yes campaign is deeply flawed, we will have to get wholeheartedly behind that deeply flawed campaign and make very, very sure that it wins in spite of itself. Independence comes before everything else. As I've said before, I'll quite happily kneel in front of a statue bearing the inscription "FIONA ROBERTSON, MOTHER OF THE NATION", just so long as Scotland is an independent country by then. Who gives a monkey's where the credit goes after we achieve our objective?
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