SNP at its peak – but split over independence

In The Book of Scotlands, the Scottish artist Momus imagines 156 alternative versions of his homeland. His “Scotlands” are a mixture of absurd short stories, coy political satire and haunting visions: in one, Scotland is entirely covered by a giant black swan from outer space; in another, all the maps are upside-down and back to front, “to make everything fresh”. Then there is “the Scotland so quiet that the ticking of your watch can be heard from one end of the country to the other” and you are advised to “please control the beating of your heart”.

Walking through Edinburgh’s emptied streets at the start of lockdown, I thought of that last one often. I listened for ticking watches and beating hearts through the haar, a sea fog that sometimes creeps in from the Firth of Forth and renders everything spookily still and close. The pandemic arrived like another world, drifting into and permeating our own, compressing all the norms of work, leisure, economics and politics into a logic of absolute priority. It has been like this everywhere. But the political consequences may prove especially profound in Scotland, where the pandemic has amplified other ticking clocks, and other beating hearts.

It is eight months until the next Scottish parliament election, when Nicola Sturgeon hopes to turn her popular management of the pandemic into what polls suggest could be the SNP’s fourth consecutive term in office and its second parliamentary majority. If successful, she will claim a mandate for a referendum on independence, despite the determined opposition of the UK government. Since the UK general election in December produced a Conservative majority, polls have started to show independence pulling ahead, a trend that has accelerated during the pandemic. Lockdown has impressed on Scottish voters the practical and symbolic authority of the devolved Scottish government, which oversees Scotland’s autonomous systems of health, education, law and other pandemic-related areas. Sturgeon has pursued a prominent, albeit moderate, divergence from the UK government’s crisis management.

While Boris Johnson has been criticised for locking down too slowly and unlocking too quickly, the symbolism of Scotland’s more cautious exit has been powerful. London’s actions have stirred collective memories of English politicians accelerating into drastic changes with scant support from Scots, from deindustrialisation under Margaret Thatcher to Johnson’s determination to “Get Brexit Done”. The SNP is presenting itself – and independence – as an emergency brake to be applied in defence of Scotland’s distinctive political consensus, a mixture of Europhile liberalism and communitarian welfarism that has much in common with European Christian Democracy.

Suddenly and belatedly, the UK government’s attention has settled on Scotland. Jackson Carlaw has been replaced as Scottish Conservative leader by the MP Douglas Ross, represented in Holyrood by Carlaw’s kenspeckle predecessor Ruth Davidson. Johnson has visited twice since the pandemic began. Michael Gove has hinted at the possibility of working with the leftwing former MP George Galloway, who hopes to win seats at Holyrood for his hardline unionist group Alliance for Unity. The Tories are still struggling, however, to translate their talent for the political dark arts into a Scottish idiom.

Labour, meanwhile, is taking its usual approach to constitutional dilemmas: trying to change the subject. Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour’s embattled leader, outlined an ambitious “Green New Deal” for Scotland in a speech on 21 August. Yet the unintended effect of his economic radicalism is to refocus attention on constitutional problems. Legislative devolution wasn’t built for structural transformation. It was designed to allow Scotland to express its distinctive political identity without threatening Britain, or much else. Leonard plans to pay for his proposals by radically expanding the Scottish government’s borrowing powers, but this requires the support of the UK government, whose Treasury jealously guards its policy arsenal.

The irony is that the thing most likely to force the UK into significant concessions is the threat of independence, which Labour wants to take off the table. The Scottish government has already asked for limited borrowing powers to be devolved as part of its pandemic recovery plans, and was easily rebuffed. This reinforces the SNP’s case for independence, but it makes Labour’s problems worse. If Scotland has to wait for England to elect a Labour government to get the extra powers it needs, why not just vote SNP to keep up the pressure?

But independence is not a foregone conclusion and there may be hope for the union yet. The sociologist Lindsay Paterson has developed something like a general theory of Scottish constitutional change, which he calls “utopian pragmatism”. Utopian ideas such as independence, he argues, have typically supplied political attention and “emotional fuel” to constitutional questions; these are met with pragmatic reforms that keep the British state intact and don’t breach Scotland’s social peace. Britain has adjusted its kilt several times, from 1969’s Royal Commission on the Constitution to the Scottish parliament and the expansion of devolution after 2014’s independence referendum. What’s stopping another twist of the plaid?

One obstacle is the party system. The SNP has traditionally provided the utopianism, while Labour has been the vanguard of cautious reform. But in the eyes of the public, the SNP now serves as both pragmatic negotiator for more devolution and the seismic threat lurking underneath. Things may even be approaching a tipping point, where the structuring divide is no longer between pragmatism in the UK and utopianism outside of it, but between different approaches to independence contested largely within the SNP.

Paradoxically, this may pose the biggest threat to the SNP’s power. Despite its success, the party is troubled by bitter internal conflict. Alex Salmond, recently cleared of charges of sexual assault and attempted rape, has accused the party leadership of conspiring against him, while his allies and others have criticised Sturgeon’s leadership on a host of issues. Much of this has focused on what to do if Westminster refuses a second referendum, but has also served to expose diverging visions of independence.

The SNP leadership are offering an impeccably constitutional route to independence that promises as little disruption as possible. Pounds sterling and the monarchy will be retained alongside Nato membership, and EU membership restored. Critics say this isn’t real independence, and want an extra-parliamentary struggle for a Scottish republic that prints its own money, carefully considers its European options and makes its own way on defence. This hopeful radicalism contrasts sharply with the leadership’s more realistic assessment of how much politics the Scottish voters can tolerate. If the stakes of that conflict continue to rise, it may become harder to contain within a single party. As the clock ticks down to 2021, all Sturgeon can say to the independence movement is: please control the beating of your heart.