The National recently published an interesting interview with Alex Salmond. Amongst other things, he said this:
[Jeremy Corbyn] wonders why he can’t get a lead in the opinion polls – well you can’t stay fuzzy on the big issue of the day and expect to beat the Government. That might tell the SNP that time is short to provide a different Scottish solution.
That’s exactly it. The SNP seems to be busy triangulating in New Labour fashion between Remain and Leave, trying to create some sort of fuzzy middle way that will keep both sides happy, but the result is utterly uninspiring, and it means Scotland is very close to going down with the Titanic instead of launching a lifeboat.
In the same article, Alex Salmond points out that “depute leadership elections in the SNP have been quite significant, [such as the one in] 1987, which was basically the classic face-off between the fundamentalists and the gradualists.” I think that what he means is that the current election in the same way can become a way for the party’s members to choose between two fundamentally different ways forward:
- The SNP can, as suggested by Pete Wishart, focus on keeping the party together, getting through Brexit (probably spending a lot of energy on getting as many powers as possible transferred to Holyrood rather than Westminster), and waiting for the most opportune moment to call a new referendum. In the following, I’ll refer to this strategy as “Waiting for Godot” (slightly unkindly, I’ll admit).
- Alternatively, the SNP can go back to saying that a hard Brexit simply is unacceptable to Scotland, given the outcome of the referendum here, and if this cannot be avoided by working together with other parties at Westminster, Scotland will need to organise a new independence referendum to limit Brexit to a very soft version in the immediate future, probably followed by full EU membership later. This means that campaigning needs to restart asap in order to achieve a majority soon enough. I’ll call this the “Carpe diem” (“seize the day”) strategy in the following.
Personally I believe that the “Waiting for Godot” route will be an utter disaster. The hard Brexit that the Tories are planning will be horrendous for Scotland, and I don’t believe for a second that voters will respond to a massive recession (and the resulting cuts to the Scottish NHS and other public services) by voting SNP in even bigger numbers than before – as the party in power, the SNP will get blamed as much as the Tories. So even if opinion polls at some point in the future show a massive majority for independence, it’s unlikely that there will be a majority of pro-independence parties that can call a referendum.
It’s also interesting that this strategy is exactly what the SNP Leavers were calling for immediately after the Brexit referendum (see my old fisk of Alex Neil’s article in The Telegraph for details on this). In other words, the “Waiting for Godot” strategy means giving in to the Leavers, although Remainers dominated in both the SNP and Scotland as a whole. It is not a compromise, but a way to ensure that Brexit doesn’t get rolled back in Scotland.
Of course all Yes—Remainers worry about getting the timing of the next independence referendum right, and it would be disastrous to lose it. However, referendums are never predictable, and starting with a strong lead in the opinion polls does not guarantee a win. Surely it’s much more important to have a strong campaign that inspires hope (for instance by allowing voters to escape Brexit).
Finally, it will almost certainly not remain the case that Scottish independence is the safest way to stop Brexit. At some point – and whether this will before or after Brexit I don’t know – a party will emerge in England that will fight wholeheartedly for the UK to remain in the EU, or to rejoin. At that point Scottish independence will not look like a lifeboat any longer, and it will become almost impossible to inspire an electorate that is fed up with change and upheaval.
I do wish that the SNP had seized the moment a year ago, but there’s still time. The first step is for the SNP’s next depute leader to belong to the “Carpe diem” faction, and I shall most certainly be voting for those candidates (such as James Dornan).
Waiting for Godot could easily lead to a very long wait – perhaps for more than a generation. This is the time to act. We need to campaign against Brexit, and for independence in Europe.