Nicola Sturgeon is expert at laying traps for her opponents but this time she may have ensnared herself. During the May 2016 Holyrood elections, the SNP leader and occasional First Minister said a Leave vote in the upcoming EU referendum should be grounds for a second ballot on independence. This, of course, was when Remain was expected to win and when England voted Out while Scotland voted In, Sturgeon’s bluff was called. She has spent the past three years devising evermore elaborate ruses to distract her restive grassroots. The latest is a Citizens’ Assembly, a forum used in Ireland to ease in constitutional changes on gay marriage and abortion.
The idea is to bring together 120 randomly-selected Scots to ruminate on the future of the nation. The Caledonian Sanhedrin will, in theory, consider questions like ‘what kind of country are we seeking to build?’ and ‘how can we overcome the challenges Scotland faces, including Brexit?’ It sounds like a jolly old focus group — each member will get £1,200 plus expenses for six weekends’ work — and a harmless if woolly exercise. However, Sturgeon announced it alongside her most recent thinking on the best timing for Indyref2 (next year) and enabling legislation for a fresh plebiscite. In all, her Citizens’ Assembly speech contained 22 references to independence and statements like: ‘The Westminster system of government simply does not serve Scotland’s interests’.
In pairing the Citizens’ Assembly with Indyref 2, Sturgeon positioned the former as a stepping stone to the latter to placate her supporters. The problem is that everyone else heard the speech too and made the same connection. Nor did it help that Sturgeon put Mike Russell, one of her most oppugnant ministers, in charge. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are boycotting the body, viewing it as a crowbar for independence, while Scottish Labour are willing to participate as long as the exercise ‘remain[s] free from the government’s ambition for another referendum’.
Their optimism appears to be in vain. Last week, senior SNP MP Joanna Cherry declared the Citizens’ Assembly ‘the perfect way to move Scotland on from the current state of Brexit paralysis created by Westminster and to move us towards independence’. That has forced the assembly’s chair David Martin to appeal to Unionists, promising that the forum will be independent of the SNP and Scottish Government. Unfortunately, he found himself doing so while sitting next to Cherry on a Citizens’ Assembly panel in Edinburgh on Monday night, a panel which also included campaigning pro-independence broadcaster Lesley Riddoch. No MPs or commentators from the anti-independence side were represented.
Martin, a Labour MEP who lost his seat in May, campaigned for the Union in 2014 but his stance has softened with subsequent pronouncements. These include calling the SNP’s handling of Brexit ‘top drawer’, claiming the EU would be ‘very sympathetic’ to an independent Scotland, and even ‘wondering if that UK union is worth saving anymore’. Martin is well-regarded across the parties but the fact he has become particularly well-regarded within the SNP of late does not help him sell the assembly. Opponents look at the Citizens’ Assembly and see a giant neon arrow marked ‘trap’. They are unsure of its role in the broader nationalist push for independence but they grasp its strategic value to Sturgeon as a time-buyer with her precipitous activists.
What’s worse, nationalists have begun to turn on the project too. Journalist Neil Mackay, a leading light in Scotland’s pro-independence establishment, complains that the Citizens’ Assembly was set to be ‘a simple, elegant addition to our democracy – but the SNP has now stomped all over it, politicised it, and, made it look falsely like a propaganda unit. The party’s behaviour is completely counter-productive, and detrimental to both democracy and the interests of Scotland’. He still believes the set-up will be politically independent and opponents were looking for an excuse to wreck but he concludes that ‘the damage is done and the much-needed assembly is tarnished in some eyes as another wing of the SNP’. His intervention damns the project more powerfully than a dozen speeches by Ruth Davidson.
The botching of the Citizens’ Assembly is a signature misstep by an SNP leader who cannot afford many more. Rather than advance the cause of separation, it has energised her opponents and confirmed to her activists that she has played them yet again. When Sturgeon took over from Alex Salmond, her popularity was booming and vindicated handsomely in the SNP’s 2015 landslide victory. She could dictate the terms of the journey towards independence unchallenged. That is no longer the case. Neither Tory leadership candidate is minded to allow her another referendum and her government’s rolling failures imperil the nationalists’ control of the Scottish Parliament after the next election. Three years after promising a second referendum Sturgeon still hasn’t delivered one and has no obvious means of doing so. It will only get harder to fob off her supporters in future.