All political careers end in failure: What if Nicola Sturgeon is looking to snatch an exit strategy from the jaws of defeat?
We often assume that Nicola Sturgeon, a life-long Scottish nationalist, wants independence at all costs and frames her decisions to that end. What if we assumed instead that her top priority is her own career and legacy – with an eye on what she does after leaving office?
Having failed to secure the consensus that previously supported a section 30 order, the SNP has sought a judgement from the Supreme Court on if Holyrood can hold an advisory referendum. If that is refused they, and the greens, intend to consider the next general election a ‘de facto referendum.
Post Political Ambitions
What has been important to Nicola Sturgeon in office has been securing control of budget and centralising power under her control. What is important to her as an exit strategy is the narrative on which she leaves office to start her post-political NGO career.
What are the possible outcomes of her Strategy?
Here is a simplified diagram of possible paths and outcomes, which shows what I believe is her game-plan & exit strategy.
Supreme Court Stage
i) The Supreme Court says it’s premature to rule until the bill is passed.
The ball goes back to the Scottish Government, with a bill their lord advocate says she does not have confidence in. This is probably the worst outcome at this stage for the nationalists. It is a criticism of the legality of their approach and would put them under pressure to try and pass a bill. That would mean either trying to pass a bill that the Lord Advocate does not have confidence in (unlikely) or having to revise the bill until the LA has confidence. It’s hard to see how that could happen when the argument has already been neutered that the referendum would have no legal effect. At this stage, they would likely drop the pretence of legality and move to the ‘election as referendum’ – as this is their preferred fight.
ii) The Supreme Court says they can rule, but it rules that Holyrood does not have the power to hold an advisory referendum.
This gives Nicola Sturgeon the breathing space of having a narrative up to the election in 2024 while, as she has indicated, she blames ‘Westminster Legislation” to stoke up grievance. The supreme court, when sitting in Scotland, is a Scottish court, the grassroots – and probably some SNP MSPs and Politicians will blame an “English” court. Nicola probably won’t use this language as bluntly, except perhaps in paralipsis.
iii) The Supreme Court says they can rule and rules in Favour of Holyrood holding An Advisory Referendum
The Supreme Court says they can rule, and the Holyrood does have the power to hold an advisory referendum. Theoretically, this should be Nicola’s best outcome. It gives her a ‘legal referendum’ – However, it is one that Unionists may still boycott and that the UK government won’t recognise. Indeed the very argument the Scottish Government are making is that the referendum would be meaningless and so would have zero legal impact.
This could lead to an almost Catalonian downfall – she might win a majority in a vote with no legal force, which perhaps the majority of the country did not participate in. Any attempt to negotiate Independence from here would be weak and ineffective. She could leave politics having claimed to have delivered a second vote & moral victory. Her legacy amongst nationalists would be tainted by the failure to convert this into Independence. Possibly, as in 1979, it will be stoked up for future grievances after another period in the wilderness for the SNP.
Nationalists (SNP / Green / Alba combined) gain over 50% of the vote.
While it may seem like this would be Nicola’s preferred outcome, it may cause her more problems than solutions. It would not lead to independence. At best, it is a protest vote. There is no such thing as a de facto referendum. A first past the post election is not a plebiscite.
It’s highly unlikely that any country which values its own territorial integrity – from Germany to Belgium, France, Spain or even the USA – will set a precedent that ~3% of a national vote can break apart a country.
The impact on her legacy in failing to secure and deliver independence would harm her reputation – and spur on the splinter groups such as Alba. A change of the guard at the SNP might see Joanna Cherry as leader bringing Alba back into the fold. Any frustrated civil unrest from Nationalists following a failure to deliver Independence would likely make the SNP anathema to more of moderate middle Scotland. That could even see them out of Power in Holyrood. Or – potentially, they would seek to pull the same trick again and call the 2025 Holyrood election “indyref 3”.
Any unilateral declaration of independence following either of these votes would not gain international recognition. Even if we presume it might somehow lead to independence, the additional chaos and uncertainty would make a bad scenario worse.
A Drop in Vote, but a majority of MPs
This also would not lead to independence – but would be jumped on by Alba. Alex Salmond, would claim that if he had been leader, we would now be independent. This could attract some voters away from the SNP to Alba in time for the next Holyrood election, where Alex may try to make a come-back to be kingmaker – looking to replace the Greens as the SNPs partner in Government. It’s doubtful Nicola would hang about for this, and it would take the shine off her exit.
So what is Nicola’s Exit Strategy?
The most likely outcome, and the one I believe Nicola is playing for, is to come out of the 2024 General election with a slight minority of the vote and a majority of MPs. Of all the results it gives her the most post-office utility.
Getting between 46% and 49% of the vote and with 56 or more MPs.
Looking at past electoral performance, She knew when proposing this path she is highly unlikely to get more than 50% of the vote.
Her exit strategy is to hit the crossbar.
- She will leave office having claimed to have delivered the promised second vote on Independence.
- She would have returned the SNP to their 2015 highest number of MPs
- She would not have to actually deliver on any election promises – the only one made in their one item manifesto having been contingent on getting over 50%
- Anything above 45% she can claim as an increase in support since the 2014 referendum.
Nicola’s Ideal Scenario would be the worst result for Ordinary Scots
What would happen next to the movement she leaves behind? Would it settle the matter? Or would the SNP under new leadership almost immediately push for independence referendum 3?
The SNP will release polling that will say something like 16 & 17-year-olds, and non-British-citizens would have pushed it over 50% – “making it all the more important that we now have an actual Scottish referendum with a Scottish Franchise.” Nicola would “pass the torch” having got Scotland “one step closer”…
The SNP might even get under 50% of the vote, but 100% of Scottish MPs.
What does that mean for the average Scot? That would truly be a democratic deficit! Most Scots would simply not be represented at Westminster: a powerful argument indeed for proportional representation.
The SNP may choose to follow in the footsteps of their Sinn Fein colleagues and be absentee MPs – they would then be undermining Westminster by making it have zero Scottish representation.
An Empty Manifesto
There would be no manifesto accountability: because their single manifesto commitment was independence with over 50% of the vote. The SNP may ramp up their disruptive tactics. They don’t need to win independence to keep power, they can play to an increasingly fanatical base while delivering even less than we have become accustomed to.
SNP MPs have not shown any great aptitude or appetite for constituency work. Indeed they have a vested interest in Scots feeling and being, unrepresented at Westminster. It has been clear that the only way the SNP could increase support for Independence since 2014 is by making people feel worse off while within the union. They are in a trap of their own rhetoric. If things had got better with 15 years of SNP government, they would be proving devolution worked.
There is, sadly, also the possibility that nationalist frustration will lead to radicalised individuals turning to political violence. Some already glamorise the nationalist terrorism of Northern Ireland. Already Fascist groups such as Siol nan Gaidheal openly march on our streets and SNP politicians tweet ‘up the ‘Ra’.
For another political period Scotland would Stagnate under Nationalism. Every penny spent, every joule of energy, every hour of civil service time wasted on unworkable independence would be stolen from Scottish Health, removed from Scottish Education, taken from Scottish Transport.
Don’t Play Chess with Pigeons…
They say you should never play chess with a pigeon: it will just knock over the pieces, shit on the board and strut around like it won anyway. That will be how Nicola’s exit strategy will manage her failure to deliver Independence.
She will claim she delivered a vote, one that led to a technical, legal defeat – but a moral victory and she will strut off into retirement – a round of after dinner speeches and no doubt one of the NGO’s she has been auditioning for, while shitting on Scotland, The Scottish People, and even on the nationalist faithful.