The Queen in the North makes her play
Nicola Sturgeon, the Queen in the North, is mistress of all she surveys. She is, everyone agrees, already the biggest winner in this long, otherwise colourless, general election campaign. The First Minister is the dominant figure in Scottish politics and, increasingly, a major player on the UK level. She has come into her own.
Yesterday was another good day for the SNP. Never before have so many London-based journalists trekked north to hear the details of the SNP manifesto. The SNP are making the political weather all across Britain.
Ms Sturgeon yesterday offered the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland a “genuine hand of friendship” in the same spirit as the spider made the fly a genuine offer of parlour-based good times. If you believe this you probably shouldn’t be trusted to handle sharp objects. Only the terminally credulous can put any faith in such a promise. The SNP has one long-term plan for this country and it is the same plan it has always had: independence. That’s the strategy; everything else is just a tactic to be used to reach that final goal.
Sure, Ms Sturgeon might say she wants a better kind of Labour party and that she will hold Ed Miliband to his promises but be in no doubt that this is merely a temporary alliance of convenience, the better designed to reassure Scots that they can vote SNP and still get a Labour government. It is a ploy designed to destroy Labour in Scotland. It is a plan that looks as though it will work.
Every day the SNP “wins” is day lost for Unionism. This is a zero sum game in which a dedicated, motivated, party of true believers fight a confused and thrice-divided Unionist opposition. In such circumstances, it is easy to see why the SNP will win and why massive, unprecedented, levels of anti-SNP tactical voting are now Unionism’s last, best, desperate hope.
Ms Sturgeon may offer friendship but she’s trussing her opponents with poison ivy. The nationalists’ diagnosis of Scotland and the UK invariably follows one of two paths. Everything that is good about the UK will continue to be grand in an independent Scotland; everything that is disagreeable about the UK will be transformed by the fact of being independent. There are no downsides, no difficulties, no reality to be stared in the face. There will be cake aplenty for everyone.
The SNP have upended the political game so thoroughly that some of the old rules no longer apply in Scotland. It used to be the case that what’s good for your opponent is bad for you and vice versa. But because the SNP is opposed to Labour and the Conservatives alike this no longer applies. The nationalists might never do a “deal” with David Cameron but they will manage to contain their disappointment should he somehow be returned for a second term next month. Another unpopular Tory government would, objectively speaking, be useful to the nationalists even — actually, especially — if its policies, including more “austerity”, caused “pain” in Scotland.
Then again, a Labour government is almost as useful to the nationalists. Ed Balls has already signalled that Labour doubts the existence of a magic money tree. Britain will have to live within her means. Which means the books must be balanced. Which means no extra public spending. The deficit and the national debt must each be reduced and failing to do so would destroy Labour’s credibility.
That means Labour must reject the SNP’s demand for billions of pounds of “modest” additional spending. And the only thing short of getting what they want that delights the SNP is not getting what they want. The next government is all but certain to be very unpopular very soon. The SNP will pretend to be vexed at seeing their ideas ignored but, secretly, they will not mind too much. Such a scenario allows them to run against the Westminster government at next year’s Holyrood elections. Only the SNP, you see, can truly “Stand for Scotland”.
At which point, of course, the independence game begins again. It is hard to countenance the SNP ruling out independence in two consecutive elections. Another majority at Holyrood — however improbable that might, given the voting system, seem — would surely constitute a mandate for another referendum. Independence, after all, is the reason for the SNP’s existence and any decision to downgrade the importance of the national question is purely a matter of temporary tactical convenience.
Besides, Ms Sturgeon joined the party before she was old enough to vote. With brief excursions to Glasgow University and some years working as a solicitor, the SNP has been her entire life. She joined the party at a time when doing so was neither popular nor profitable. Much has changed, in Scotland and the world, since the 1980s but Nicola Stugeon’s faith in independence is unshakeable.
Which is why there is no need to take too seriously her protestation that this general election has nothing to do with independence. Why, she says putting on her best innocent face, a vote for the SNP next month is not a vote for independence. In the short-term this may be true, in as much as an SNP landslide in Scotland will not raise the grim spectre of another referendum on independence immediately.
Ms Sturgeon, however, has very carefully refused to rule out another referendum and one to be held somewhat sooner than the “once in a generation” opportunity promised in the Scottish government’s own white paper on independence. Circumstances, the First Minister notes, might change.
And here’s the thing about circumstances: they always change. Politics is not static. New crises and opportunities arise every year. Adapting to, and capitalising upon, these changes in circumstance is the mark and test of a first-class politician. The most foolish thing of all is pretending that what’s happening today will continue to happen in the future. Things change. So do countries. And Scotland may have changed already.
For all that the SNP would not be displeased if David Cameron returned to government and then held a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU the party also knows that this is hardly the only scenario in which independence could yet be won. We are just seven months distant from the last referendum and already the party is — with a knowing nod and a leering wink — sketching out the road to another referendum.
The SNP leader knows she has time on her side. As she put it at the weekend, “I think Scotland will become an independent country one day. I think that’s the general direction of travel”. Having waited all her adult life for independence, the First Minister can afford to wait a few years more. In any case, “the substantive change in circumstances” she imagines necessary before another referendum can be held really just means the SNP want to hold the next referendum at a moment when they are odds-on to win it, not suffer a second defeat.
Ms Sturgeon is enjoying this election and she has every right to. At present she has her opponents dancing to her tune and, what’s more, all the available evidence suggests the Scottish people are enjoying the spectacle of Ms Sturgeon leading Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Clegg such a merry dance. For Scotland and Scotland’s interest, of course. Or so she says.
A version of this article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on Tuesday April 21st, 2015