Post-referendum Scottish politics is a polarised place where dogma and demagoguery currently reign. While at least 55 per cent of Scots were hoping last September would mean a halt to the seemingly endless debate over independence, a voluble proportion of the remaining 45 per cent seem keen to make the constitution the only issue in town. The precise size of that proportion might be about to be tested.
Nicola Sturgeon is a clever politician with good advisers, so it should be no surprise that she has treated calls for a second referendum with extreme caution. She knows that while a re-run would delight the fundamentalists and recent converts (and it is worth remembering that is the majority of her newly enlarged membership) it would risk a significant backlash from many voters.
Sturgeon’s careful response has been to say ‘the people of Scotland will decide’. Which is all very well until you realise that they will only get the opportunity to decide if someone asks them. And unless it looks like a comfortable win for yes, the Scottish national party just is not going to do that.
Evidence that the SNP leadership intends to keep a firm commitment to ‘Indyref 2’ out of their 2016 manifesto came when it made clear it was not going to give its members the opportunity to debate it at its upcoming conference.
As a result of the SNP’s caution, some independence supporters last week began the process of setting up a new political party. The Scottish Independence party has been founded with the central aim of ‘keeping independence on the agenda’. The party plans to field candidates in every Scottish seat, on a platform led by a call for a second referendum in the next parliament.
There is some reason to doubt whether such a venture can get off the ground, given the buoyant support for both Sturgeon and the SNP among independence supporters. But the present politics of Scotland is febrile, and the SNP has done more than most to persuade people that party loyalty is a thing of the past. Those who switched from Labour to SNP in their droves could switch elsewhere again just as quickly. So Sturgeon’s inner guard, who must surely have been expecting something of this nature, will be watching the SIP with interest.
Some big names have already chimed in with supportive sentiments. Jim Sillars, long an outcast from the SNP but last year welcomed back into the fold with open arms, said the quest for a second referendum should be the SNP’s ‘principle political task’. Cat Boyd, of the Radical Independence Campaign, has urged the SNP to strike now before the strength of the independence movement is allowed to ‘ebb away’. Gordon Macintyre-Kemp, of Business for Scotland, says ‘the commitment to a referendum will be, must be, in the SNP manifesto; the only question is how heavily caveated that commitment will sit’.
I think Kenny Farquharson of the Times has put his finger on the likely solution for the SNP. He suggests that Sturgeon will ask her party to give her a discretionary power to choose when – and whether – to call a second referendum during the next parliament. This can be painted as an endorsement of her leadership and of the importance of independence, but would allow her to gently sidestep the issue (as she must do) without explicitly angering her core.
The question, then, is how many independence fundamentalists will consider this insufficient, and be persuaded to back the SIP instead?
Sturgeon has phenomenal popularity and huge political capital. My guess is that she will not lose many high-profile supporters if she plays it with caution. But in the grassroots, and in that 90,000 strong cavalcade of excitable and determined new members, there are many who are finding their political voice for the first time, and its loudest refrain is ‘independence’. If it looks like she is standing in the way of that, the mutiny Sturgeon faces might not just be in the ballot boxes of 2016, but in the SNP branches across the country – time will tell.
Duncan Hothersall is a Scottish business owner and Labour activist
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