Euan McColm: SNP's indy survey will try No voters' patience

The First Minister can try to make the sums work for independence, but her bid to butter up No voters with a survey is a non-starter, writes Euan McColm
Sturgeon at the Stirling launch of what she dubbed the biggest ever political listening exercise. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PASturgeon at the Stirling launch of what she dubbed the biggest ever political listening exercise. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
Sturgeon at the Stirling launch of what she dubbed the biggest ever political listening exercise. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

‘Remember,” states the document, “to be courteous and patient with those you speak to.” Because you’re a well-brought up sort, you don’t need this advice. It would never occur to you to be anything but courteous. And patience? Why, you’re positively louping with patience.

But not everyone is as effortlessly charming as you, are they? There’s some folk, you can’t take them anywhere. And so, just to be on the safe side, prominent in the SNP’s National Survey activists’ guide is the reminder to be polite.

Let’s see how that plays out…

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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had promised a summer push for independence. Her departing deputy, Stewart Hosie (a peculiarly charmless man to have been given responsibility for winning over sceptical No voters) was to have taken charge of this initiative.

But then Hosie, after some 1990s-style tabloid scandal, announced that he was stepping down as the SNP’s deputy leader and the wheeze was postponed.

Now here it is, just in time for autumn.

The Scottish Nationalists plan to win over those who decided in the 2014 referendum that they preferred to remain in the UK with a prolonged charm offensive.

The first stage in this process is the National Survey in which all are encouraged to participate. Completed survey forms will help the SNP discover just why people rejected separation in 2014. Armed with this information, a new offer may be designed.

SNP activists and supporters have been asked by the party to play a central role in ensuring as many people as possible are persuaded to fill in the form. Pro-independence Scots are encouraged to mention the National Survey’s existence to chums either in the real world or online. If you speak to groups of friends on WhatsApp, says the guide, why not drop the National Survey into the conversation?

For those of you of a certain age, a WhatsApp group chat is a way of sharing with friends gossip about mutual acquaintances. One can already hear the gears crunch as someone ruins the fun with a sudden swerve into constitutional debate… “Did you hear about what Brian got up to with the guy from accounts? And, also, do you favour further devolution or perhaps a federal arrangement for the UK? #lol #goodtimes”

Sceptics might think that it’s not hard to figure out why a majority of Scots voted No in 2014. First, there was the fact that they felt some British identity and second there was the fact that the SNP’s White Paper was 640 pages of utter nonsense.

Former First Minister Alex Salmond, that furious patter merchant, insisted that an independent Scotland would be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. But the truth – and not even the most passionate Scottish Nationalist can deny it – is that independence would have been a hugely costly business.

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Of course, this is not to say Scotland could not be independent, but it is no longer credible to ignore the reality that breaking from the UK would mean an annual increase in the deficit of £15bn and that this would require a combination of tax rises and cuts to public services.

Sturgeon, usually a more cautious, thoughtful politician than her predecessor, is starting to sound awful like him. Her suggestion to independence supporters – an excitable minority – that it’s inevitable they’ll get their second referendum sooner rather than later is just the sort of bluff and bluster at which Salmond excelled.

The First Minister has watched for two years as support for independence has failed to shift. She can talk about changed circumstances, she can rage about Scotland being dragged out of the EU against its will, but she cannot – it seems – make independence more attractive to those who rejected it.

I am unsure how she thinks encouraging pro-independence Scots to go on about the subject to friends and family is going to change that. I daresay that, for now, those who voted No in 2014 might like a break from incessant complaining about the constitution and a little more attention to the domestic agenda.

Along with orchestrating a mass banging on by nationalists, Sturgeon also announced the establishment of a “growth commission” to be headed by the former MSP Andrew Wilson, a founding partner of the Charlotte Street Partners communications agency. The commission will look at the prospects for Scotland’s economy after the UK leaves the EU and consider key issues that were not properly addressed in 2014, such as the currency that would be used in the event of Scottish independence.

Sturgeon was wise to take this step. The SNP was woefully lacking on credible answers on the economy in 2014, and even though one struggles to imagine the circumstances in which Wilson and his colleagues on the commission might report back that the numbers couldn’t be made to work, at least the First Minister is making an effort to strengthen her case.

I suspect, however, that Wilson’s work will be rather lost amidst the clamour for another referendum that the National Survey will create among those who are already sold on the idea.

No voters have not only given their verdict on independence in 2014, they have made their views clear by supporting unionist parties in two subsequent elections.

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Will those voters be willing to assist the SNP by participating in the National Survey or will they set their jaws against it? I suspect that many will choose the second option.

The First Minister made much on her elevation to the head of the Scottish government almost two years ago about her desire to lead for all Scots, regardless of how they had voted in the referendum, but the reality is that she is becoming as obsessed with the constitution as Alex Salmond was.

Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t need a national survey to tell her that most Scots want the government to get on with sorting out schools and the health service and to stop going on about a referendum desired only by a minority.