Joyce McMillan: Nicola Sturgeon must improve case for independence

The SNP leader should focus not on a referendum but on making a better case for independence, writes Joyce McMillan

The SNP leader should focus not on a referendum but on making a better case for independence, writes Joyce McMillan

A sunny day in the capital, a smart red suit, and 1,300 delighted supporters packed into the Edinburgh International Conference Centre in Morrison Street: oh yes, it was a successful manifesto launch day on Wednesday for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, the party which - despite being in government in Scotland for the last nine years - still looks like attracting the support of around 45 per cent of voters in the constituency poll, a score which will probably give the SNP more than 65 of the Scottish Parliament’s 73 constituency seats, and another overall majority. It’s a formidable record, in other words; and the SNP’s opponents would do well to spend more time mulling over the reasons for the party’s relative popularity, and less time complaining about it, in strikingly petulant tones.

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For the SNP leadership, though, the near-certainty of continuing in government looks, a decade on, like an increasingly mixed blessing. On one hand, there are the relatively tough times facing the Scottish economy, as the dramatic collapse in North Sea oil prices begins to bite. On the other, there’s the nasty tax trap contained in the ill-advised and unstable Smith Commission settlement, which gives the Scottish Government the power to raise more money to fund public services, but only if it leans almost entirely on earned income tax, the most unpopular tax of all.

And slap bang in the middle, there is the question of a second independence referendum, which the First Minister tried to tackle head-on in her manifesto launch speech. Now it’s as well to be clear that given the stated purpose and identity of her party, the position currently being taken by the First Minister and the SNP leadership is about as sensible as it could be. As a party, they can’t reasonably renounce the cause of independence, even for one parliament; they have to be prepared to return to it if events demand it.

Yet at the same time, the SNP leadership seem well aware that there is simply no point in promising a second referendum until they can be sure of winning it. Realistically, to be fairly certain of a referendum win, the SNP would have to see about a year of support for independence running very close to, if not above, 60 per cent, given the buffeting that majority would take during another “Project Fear” campaign; and with polls placing current support for independence somewhere around 45 to 50 per cent, that means they still need to convert around a fifth of current “No” voters to the cause, before they can consider a second poll.

All of which leaves both Scotland and its ruling party in something of an impasse. The nation has a government primarily committed to something it cannot currently deliver, and inclined - given the broad church it obviously contains - to make a rather vague and unconvincing job of squaring the circle between the First Minister’s rhetoric about social democracy and sustainability, and the SNP’s long-term habit of compromise with 21st century capitalism. And the party finds itself sandwiched between that noisy section of its own membership which has developed a fervent belief both in the power of independence to change everything, and in the power of referendum campaigns to deliver ever-increasing support for independence; and - on the other hand - a Unionist majority or near-majority who now seem to feel that the SNP should “show respect” for them and their views by simply shutting up about independence, and focussing on other matters.

Now it goes without saying that both of these demands are ridiculous. To hold a second unsuccessful independence referendum any time soon would be a disastrous tactical error for the SNP, and any member of the party who cannot see that is completely out of touch with political reality. At the same time, unionist politicians and commentators who demand that the SNP “rule out” any second referendum are being both disingenuous and, in their turn, disrespectful, since they know that independence is the SNP’s raison d’etre, and that the party can do no such thing.

And as ever, there is just one way of making sense of this increasingly divisive mix of constitutional politics and everyday social and economic governance; and that is to step right back from the fray, and develop a coherent plan for the social-democratic Scotland its people seem to want, that is both honest about what that would require - particularly in terms of new tax regimes - and credible in its outline of how we would get there. Nicola Sturgeon has told us and her party, many times, that the reason she is in the SNP is because she believes that such a programme for social democracy is undeliverable within the UK; and with David Cameron in Downing Street, and George Osborne at the Treasury, it should not be beyond the wit of the party to make that case.

So if the SNP is looking for ways of building that 60 per cent majority that it needs and wants, it’s fairly obvious that it should start there; not with a “summer campaign” as promised, but with a serious consultative rewrite - led by the party and other independence-supporting groups, not by the civil service - of the White Paper of November 2013, a rewrite which strives to meet the main objections to that much-debated document, surpasses it in the range and credibility of its long-term vision, and takes full note of some of the more comprehensive and radical ideas for a sustainable Scottish future advanced by other independence parties, notably the Greens.

If the SNP can deliver that kind of document, then it will at least have a credible basis for the process of persuasion on which it needs to embark. And if not - well, it’s still possible that winds of change blowing across Europe may make independence more likely, in the coming years. If Scotland achieves independence without having a clear idea of what it is for, though, it will be a largely worthless prize; and Nicola Sturgeon now needs to prove herself a stateswoman as well as a successful politician, by dedicating her next five years to linking the constitutional argument to the vital radical business of real social and economic reform, or letting it go.