This time last year I was terrified that we were about to lose our country. We were a month away from the independence referendum and I could tell that something had changed in the period between the beginning of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games (in late July) and the beginning of the final run-in to the vote (mid August). In London this change was not apparent until much later – until the famous Sunday Times crossover poll (on 7 September) that put Yes in the lead. But by then I knew that things had stabilised, that we were going to be ok and that while it was going to be closer than the 60/40 victory we wanted, we were nonetheless going to win and to win decisively.
A year on from the worst fortnight of my political life, independence feels further away than ever.
How could I say this, when in the year since the referendum the SNP have enjoyed such extraordinary success, with a surge in their membership and their stupendous result in the May 2015 general election, winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the House of Commons? Further, all the polls suggest that the party is on course to retain office next May and, indeed, to increase its majority in Holyrood. The SNP’s main rivals (for the time being), the Labour party, may fail to win any constituencies next May, with all their MSPs being elected via the regional lists. This, if it transpires, would be a result as remarkable (and as devastating for Labour) as the general election result was three months ago. The SNP look unstoppable. Surely it is just a matter of time – and not very much time – before their dream is realised?
Well, I don’t think so. Indeed, it is partly because of the rise and rise in the popularity of the SNP that independence is becoming a more distant prospect.
During the referendum campaign we often sought to reduce the broader Yes movement to the SNP. We knew that the SNP and, in particular, its then leader were less popular than the idea of Yes. But it wasn’t always true. Even if the formal links between the SNP and the official Yes Scotland campaign were closer than Yes Scotland wanted to admit, there was a broader campaign that was not so closely allied to the SNP leadership (Women for Independence, Bella Caledonia, National Collective, RIC, Common Weal, the Scottish Greens, etc). But, as part of the post-indyref surge, these groups have either withered, become marginalised, or been effectively folded into the SNP. National Collective is no more. RIC are completely irrelevant. Common weal, in the well-established tradition of the Trots, has fallen out with itself. The Scottish Greens had an entirely anonymous general election campaign. And the main leaders of Women for Indy have become SNP MPs (Natalie McGarry) or are seeking election to Holyrood as SNP MSPs (Jeane Freeman).
In other words, something has happened that the SNP tried for years to avoid happening: the fate of the party and the fate of the broader independence movement have become tied to one another. The problem, for Yessers, with this, is that all parties – even the SNP – fall. Eventually.
Unfashionable as it may be to say so, given their disastrous misreading of British public opinion in May, I think the polls are broadly right about next year’s Holyrood election. The SNP will retain office. Nicola Sturgeon (of whom more below) will not be ousted as First Minister. But this is peak SNP. With 56 MPs and perhaps as many as 70 MSPs, this is as good as it can ever get for them. And after you’ve reached your peak, the only way is down. And what will bring the SNP down is their record in government. By the time of the next-but-one Holyrood election (assuming it takes place in 2021) the SNP will have been in power, continuously, for 14 years. If Scotland’s schools haven’t improved by then it will be no-one but the SNP’s fault (and, so far, Scottish education has got worse, not better, under the SNP). If the Scottish health service is still in the mess in 2021 that it is in now, it will be no-one but the SNP’s fault. Moreover, well before 2021 the new tax and welfare powers agreed by the Smith Commission and currently being legislated for in the Scotland Bill will be fully in force. Mr Swinney made a complete hash of the first tax devolved to him (stamp duty) and, when he takes charge of income tax in Scotland, which he soon will, his job will get a whole lot harder. Especially when he has a Cabinet Secretary for Welfare urging him radically to increase spending on social security provision in Scotland.
All bubbles burst. All tides recede. Eventually. At the moment the SNP is, to many people, more of a cult than a political party. One poll found recently that 62% of Scots plan to vote for them next year despite only 35% of us thinking that they are doing a good job with the powers they have. But this too will pass, as Scots come to understand that the SNP is not just another anti-austerity protest movement but, you know, an actual government with, you know, actual powers and stuff. Reason can be blinded by the passions, but only for so long.
The SNP leadership knows all this. And, given that they know that the longer they remain in office the greater are the chances of their bubble bursting, why would they not be planning on cutting and running as soon as possible, calling indyref2 sooner rather than later? The answer to that is simple: if a second independence referendum were called today it would deliver the same result as the first one gave us last September. Lose twice, and the dream really does die. Nicola Sturgeon does not want that to be her legacy.
The SNP leadership knows why they lost in September. Many of the SNP’s members and supporters have not come to terms with the reasons for their defeat, at least if Twitter is any judge (zoomers gonna zoom and all that), but the leadership is a lot smarter than (much of) the flock.
This time last year, the Yes movement took Scotland to the edge. They should never have been allowed to get anywhere near this point, but that is another story. Scotland peered over the edge and Scotland thought about it. This time last year there was a period of about a fortnight when I genuinely didn’t know what would happen. Having looked over the edge, would Scots say, “fuck it, let’s jump”, or would we say, “oh shit, that’s a long way down”? Reason prevailed. Emotionally, we were ready to go. But doubts crept in. That nagging currency issue. That enduring sense that the Scottish Government had not done their homework, that the sums did not add up, that there was too much bluster not only on the economy, but on EU membership, on the costs of setting up the new state, and on whether independence really could be realised on the fast-track timetable the SNP insisted on. Doubts that this was a leap of faith, that there was turbulence ahead, and that the landing would be bumpy.
In the intervening year, all these doubts have turned out to be entirely justified — and then some. Scots know this, and the SNP leadership knows this too. Look at the oil price. Look at Greece. Look at the impossibility of running a currency union without surrendering fiscal sovereignty. George Osborne and the UK Treasury were right: the SNP’s half-baked plans for a currency union were a non-starter.
Independence won’t happen until reason as well as the passions dictate it. And the reasoned case is even harder to make now than it was in 2013-14. For one thing, no indyref2 is going to be called until and unless the SNP consider that a majority of Scots are ready to give up sterling and contemplate joining the euro.
Thus the fate of independence is trapped. Go for a second referendum too soon and all the SNP do is to hand the unionists another victory, but wait too long and peak SNP is in the past, not the future.
None of this means, however, that the Union is secure. If, emotionally, we were ready to jump into the abyss a year ago, we’re still ready now. But, equally, if passion alone was not enough to realise independence, reason alone will not be enough to save the Union in the longer term. The idea of Union has to find its way back into Scots’ hearts – and that’s going to be a long journey. And there are big risks to be overcome. The spectre of Europe continues to haunt English politics and Scotland could yet find itself caught on the wrong side of a very south British argument about EU membership. Likewise, the spectre of Corbyn haunts the Labour party. What loyalty to the old British state will a party led by a man such as Corbyn have? There is much mischief here for the nationalists to exploit.
So they will keep their options open. My guess is that the SNP will not rule out a second referendum, but neither will they plan on holding one any time soon, unless there is a “material change” in the constitutional landscape. The material change they really need, however, is the one most likely to elude them. Reason prevailed on 18 September 2014 and even in the cultish atmosphere of post-indyref Scottish politics, there is still, beneath the fog and the flag, ample room for reason.