Because the SNP have won so often and so conclusively in recent years there is an understandable temptation to suppose they must always know what they are doing. Accordingly, Nicola Sturgeon sits in Bute House like some political Moriarty: motionless, perhaps, but like a spider at the centre of its web. And ‘that web has a thousand radiations, and [s]he knows well every quiver of each of them’. Other political parties may plan, but the SNP plots.
Everything is done for a reason and nothing is left to chance. The nationalists are relentless and implacable. No wonder they put the fear of God into their foes (especially a Labour party they long since supplanted as the natural party of government in Scotland). Well, even if there is something to this it still gives the SNP too much credit. They are just as capable of making it up as they go long as any other party. They lurch from event to event, week by week, just like other parties. There is a long term goal but the path to it changes with the weather. The absence of a clear plan should not be taken as evidence of a deeply subtle, infinitely cunning, plan. Nicola Sturgeon is many things but she is not Karla, you know.
And if you remember this, the First Minister’s actions since Brexit begin to make more sense. Like everyone else, she is reacting to events, not leading them. Brexit, coupled with the Scottish vote to ‘Remain’ (though legally there was no such thing as a distinct Scottish vote) put another independence referendum ‘on the table’ (as though it were ever off the table). Indeed, it meant IndyRef2 was now ‘highly likely’.
Or maybe not. After all, if Scotland got what the Scottish government demands from Brexit – as ‘soft’ a Brexit as possible – then there’d be no need for an independence referendum after all. Give us everything we want and we’ll take the threat of a referendum off its table. The SNP call this a ‘compromise’ though your mileage may differ and you could reckon it the kind of compromise that’s better understood as blackmail.
After all, as Sturgeon told Andrew Marr yesterday, she is ‘not bluffing’ about this. There won’t be a referendum this year (not least because there won’t be time to pass a Section 30 order this year, let alone the subsequent referendum legislation) but there might be one sooner than you think. As soon, in fact, as the UK government rejects the (impossible) ‘compromise’ offered by the SNP.
On which note, incidentally, it should go without saying that there is no need for the UK government to reject Sturgeon’s proposal that Scotland should remain a member of the single market even if the rest of the UK leaves it. There is no need for London to do so, not when Madrid and Brussels and plenty of other European capitals will do it for them. Alas, I suspect that, as so often, something that goes without saying still needs saying.
Still, it is true that Sturgeon is not bluffing in the longer-term. There are plenty of fancy commentators in London who think she must be because, well, because of reasons. Perhaps. There is another view, however, which is that when a politician repeatedly promises to kick you in the shins it is wise to assume that, at some point, they are serious about kicking you in the shins. To think otherwise is to indulge the same kind of complacency that was evident in too many places for too long in 2013 and 2014.
So the plan, as far as Sturgeon is concerned, is simple: keep every option open for as long as possible. Commit to nothing, but hint at everything. Buy time and purchase space until such time as the wider political context becomes marginally clearer. This is not especially ignoble; it might even be prudent even if there is also a risk that the constant threat of another referendum might be subject to the laws of diminishing returns, hardening opposition just as surely as it encourages the true believers.
But, as ever, the SNP are making an each-way bet. If Brexit proves a disaster then the political case for independence begins to look more attractive. Those people who argue that the numbers – cold, hard, economics – do not necessarily favour independence in those circumstances have a point but we should have learned by now that politics is more than numbers. In any case, Sturgeon has more than one round left in her magazine. As she told Andrew Marr:
‘If we’re going to be ignored […] We have to ask ourselves in Scotland, are we happy to have the direction of our country, the kind of country we want, to be determined by a right-wing Conservative government perhaps for the next 20 years, or do we want to take control of our own future?’
Even a simpleton can understand this: if a referendum does not take place in this parliament, it may well take place in the next. And if that referendum is won, Jeremy Corbyn will be remembered as independence’s handmaid. By destroying the Labour party as a potential party of government he would, by this analysis, leave Scotland little option but to go its own way. The alternative being, apparently, an endless Tory winter.
Some of us have been pointing this out ever since Corbyn became leader of the Labour party so it is nice to see Sturgeon confirming our analysis. But it is also confirmation that there is no single route to independence as well, naturally, as being a reminder that the nationalists tend to think everything boosts the case for, and the necessity of, independence. The plan is so infinitely adaptable is scarcely exists as a plan but the goal remains the same and that, at least, is never in doubt. So, no, she’s not bluffing even if she is just making it up as she goes along.