There was an exchange on social media the other day between two young Scots who are well-known in the pro-independence movement.
Both had recently become disillusioned with politics, and one was even contemplating the possibility of abstaining in the forthcoming general election. This was not because their passion for independence had dimmed, or because they doubted for a moment that Nicola Sturgeon will lead the SNP to yet another landslide triumph on June 8. It was simply that they felt the SNP (and indeed other pro-independence parties such as the Greens) are not offering a clear enough road-map to the ultimate goal.
All of this may seem incomprehensible to those south of the border who receive their ‘news’ about Scotland from the rabid right-wing press, and who therefore believe that Ms Sturgeon spends her every waking moment obsessively plotting a referendum she would hold next Wednesday if she could. But the reality is that the SNP have made a strategic decision to largely ‘park’ the issue of independence for the duration of the campaign, in much the same way they did in the 2015 general election. They will focus instead on bread-and-butter issues (the fabled ‘day job’), and on the need for a strong Scottish bloc of MPs at Westminster to force key concessions from the UK government.
And why not, after all? That pitch proved to be one of the most wildly successful in British electoral history last time around, and it’s scarcely unreasonable to aim for a repeat. The thing is, though, that there are two very obvious differences between 2015 and now.
The first is that nobody really believes that the SNP will have much influence in the coming parliament – not through any failing of their own, but simply because the Tories look set to win a three-figure majority on the back of English votes. The SNP could win every single seat in Scotland, and they still wouldn’t be in a position to dictate terms on Trident, Brexit or an end to austerity.
The second difference is that Ms Sturgeon wasn’t proposing an independence referendum in 2015, and she is now. For a committed independence supporter, the idea of falling relatively quiet about a referendum at this particular moment might almost look like a sign of weakness in the face of Theresa May’s outrageous attempts to block an exercise in democratic self-determination. And so the cry goes up – defy May, and use this election to seek a mandate for a referendum. Give us something to vote for that might make a concrete difference.
Which is to completely overlook the steel in Ms Sturgeon’s actual stance. In contrast to 2015, she is not staying off the subject of independence because she doesn’t think a referendum will happen. She’s doing it because the democratic decision to hold a referendum has already been taken by the elected Scottish Parliament. If she played the Tory game and made this election all about independence, she would be capitulating to the argument that the immaculate process that has already taken place – seeking a mandate for a referendum in last year’s Holyrood election, and then confirming that mandate in a parliamentary vote – was somehow insufficient.
If the wannabe autocrat in Downing Street is permitted to say “this mandate isn’t enough, you need another”, what is to stop her ignoring the result of this election as well? And the one after, and the one after that? Ms Sturgeon deserves the overwhelming backing of those clamouring for an endgame on independence because she is standing up for the existing mandate they worked so hard to win.
Sceptics would still have an objection at this point. If Ms Sturgeon couldn’t face down the Prime Minister’s subversion of parliamentary democracy when the Tories had a slim majority in the Commons, how can she possibly do it when the Tories have a majority of over 100? To which the obvious answer is: give her a chance.
It may seem like an eternity ago that the ball was set rolling on an independence referendum, but it’s actually only been a couple of months. Ms Sturgeon was set to unveil her plans for making progress towards a referendum in the face of London intransigence, but had to postpone them when the snap election got in the way. A brief postponement is all it is.
Whatever those plans are, they are highly unlikely to be dependent on winning votes on the floor of the Commons, so the size of the Tory majority is not hugely relevant. They may, for example, include contingency preparations for a consultative referendum that could be held under the Scottish Parliament’s existing powers.
In any case, those who hanker after a more hardline response to the Tories on the constitution shouldn’t need to be spoon-fed in an election such as this. The SNP may not be seeking an explicit mandate on independence, but the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems certainly are. There’s something faintly comical about it – the unionist parties claim to be driven by the need to avoid another ‘divisive’ referendum, and yet their antidote to that supposedly hellish eventuality is to make every single election in Scotland from now until eternity a bitter, divisive, sectarian battle all about independence. Even more deliciously, they are doing it even though they know they are almost guaranteed to be defeated.
What greater motivation does a young supporter of independence require to go to the polls and make sure that the defeat is as crushing as possible?
James Kelly's blog, Scot goes POP!, is among the most popular political blogs in the UK. He has also contributed to a number of newspapers and magazines.
James has also written for us about the tyranny of Theresa May, the madness of King Trump, the crisis created by the Brexit legal challenge and why Scottish Labour care more about Corbyn than their country.