The SNP has become so accustomed to setting the agenda that the situation in which it presently finds itself – one of uncertainty tinged with the mildest dose of ennui – is modestly disconcerting. Nicola Sturgeon played all the right notes during her conference speech yesterday but there was still something perfunctory about her address. The delegates liked it but it wasn’t greeted with the kind of joyous rapture prompted by Ms Sturgeon’s previous conference speeches. She still believes in a place called independence, of course, it’s just that she doesn’t know – and, worse, cannot say – when it will next be glimpsed. It exists, of course, but seeing how you get there is harder than it used to be.
From 2011 to 2017, the nationalists set the agenda. It was they who made the running. If Westminster did not always, as Alex Salmond had promised, ‘dance to a Scottish jig’, it remained the case that relations between Edinburgh and London were largely and most of the time dictated from the Scottish capital, not the great imperial metropolis.
That is no longer the case. For the time being, the SNP is a party to which things happen, not a party that makes things happen. Brexit is beyond its purview and control. And Brexit, it is clear, is the horse the SNP still thinks can be ridden to eventual glory. The time is not now and it may not be tomorrow either but it will arrive. Sturgeon remains sure that Brexit will prove a disaster and that when this is apparent the Scottish people will demand a second referendum on independence.
Maybe so, though as wise heads have been observing lately the SNP tends to run into trouble when it assumes its analysis is shared by everyone else. There are some within the party who think a Plan B should be developed just in case Brexit doesn’t prove the winning calamity the party hopes it will. What, these quiet sceptics ask, will we do if the people decide they can bear the indignities and miseries of a sub-optimal Brexit? What if there is an alternative to the theory that, actually, there is no alternative except independence?
Still, this is a moment of hiatus. The SNP cannot shape Brexit and it is not even clear it can shape attitudes towards Brexit and its perceived shortcomings. As Mhairi Black, the Paisley Pasionara, told conference, ‘We may not know what we’re stepping into, we might not know where we’re going, but we sure as hell know what we’re walking away from’. Not for the first time, the difference between hardcore Nats and devout Brexiteers seemed less striking than their resemblance.
Be that as it may, ‘Vote for liberty, anything could happen’ seems an inadequate message to take to the people. It reflects, however, the manner in which the shattered case for independence (2014 edition) has not yet been repaired. This is not just a matter of declining oil prices and eye-watering fiscal deficits (though it is partly that). It cuts deeper still.
If you are minded to accept the SNP critique of Brexit – that it is monumentally silly to cut yourself off from your largest single trading partner – you must accept that independence, if viewed in these terms, piles foolishness upon stupidity. The answer to one constitutional and economic calamity is not necessarily another constitutional and economic clusterfuck.
That, however, is the logic of the SNP’s current position. We shall meet uncertainty with uncertainty, risk with risk, confusion with confusion and muddle with muddle. We shall never give in, not for so long as one hundred of us remain. As can never be stressed too keenly, the UK market is more important to the Scottish economy than the EU market is to the UK economy and, friends, the EU market is pretty damn important to the UK.
How can this be resolved? At present, no-one knows. When push comes to shove, the SNP leadership assumes that Yes-Leave voters will privilege Yes above Leave but it also thinks that No-Remain voters will consider Remain more important than No. There is no obvious reason for this differential analysis but it is what, deep down, the SNP leadership seems to believe.
Fairness demands we concede that this is what Ruth Davidson and David Cameron believed too and it remains too soon to say those fears were not misplaced. Catastrophe Brexit imposed upon a reluctant Scotland may yet, as the SNP thinks, make the cost of leaving seem more attractive than the price of remaining within the UK. The idea of taking back control, per Ms Black and Ms Sturgeon, may seem more promising than whatever is left of the UK.
Maybe so, though at present there is little sign of that being the case. And yet for all that it has become commonplace to think the nationalist fox shot, there are other ways of interpreting the current situation in which we find ourselves.
Let us agree, for the sake of argument, that there is no economically persuasive vision of independence on the table. The numbers do not lie and they are, for better or worse, all against the SNP. Let us add that the party has, as yet, no answers to these questions of economics and currency. Nor can it tell us anything useful about future relations with the EU or, more importantly, the rump UK outwit the EU. On these and a dozen other big ticket items the sound of silence dominates.
Instead we are asked to leap without looking, trusting that a full heart will somehow ensure the softest of soft landings. Everything will be fine in the end or, at any rate, not as bad as what we will be leaving behind.
Moreover, let us also accept that independence is being sold by a party that, after a decade in government, no longer offers the glad confident morning it once did. Ms Sturgeon remains popular with the faithful but her approval ratings overall are neutral. She is a divider, not a uniter and the days when she promised to be the former have gone. It is not impossible that if independence is ever delivered, someone else will be its midwife.
So if we accept all this, if we accept the fact that the SNP is tasked with reinventing itself while in government and that it has barely begun the process of repairing or replacing the busted 2014 prospectus for independence, then we can appreciate that the party has it all to do and we may suspect that the odds are against it. For the time being, anyway.
If we accept all that, we might expect support for independence – unavoidably uncertain but also voluntary – to have collapsed.
Reader, it has not. Support for independence remains between 40 and 45 per cent in almost every recent poll. It has not gone away, you know. The SNP is not in a very good place right now. Indeed you could go further and argue that it has precisely none of the answers to the questions is knows it needs to answer, let alone those is doesn’t yet know it will have to answer one day. And yet, despite all this, support for its raison d’être remains high.
If independence can poll between 40 and 45 percent when this, all this, is against it, what might it poll if or when the sun begins to shine upon it? If the nationalists need to prepare a Plan B, so do Unionists. Because what happens if, for whatever reason, this turns out to be as bad as it gets for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP? What will Unionists do then?