ANDREW NEIL: Nicola Sturgeon's switch would make Arthur Daley proud

ANDREW NEIL: Nicola Sturgeon’s canny switch would have made Arthur Daley proud

Following the failure of Nicola Sturgeon’s pro-independence SNP to win an overall majority in last week’s elections to the Scottish parliament, the 314-year-old Union between England and Scotland lives to fight another day.

Of course, it is by no means certain that the British Government would have bowed to Sturgeon’s demands for a second independence referendum even if she had won an overall majority.

Such matters are reserved for Westminster, and the House of Commons is in no mood to grant another vote so soon after the first in 2014 (which the separatists lost 55 per cent to 45 per cent).

A young woman joins Yes activists as they gather in George Square on September 17, 2014

But, without an overall majority, the chances of the SNP getting a second chance at separation any time soon are much diminished. Naturally, the First Minister doesn’t see it that way.

No sooner were the election results in than Sturgeon had morphed into the Arthur Daley of Scottish politics.

Those of you who remember the hilarious 1980s comedy hit Minder, starring the peerless George Cole as Arthur Daley with Dennis Waterman as his bodyguard (or ‘minder’), will recall Daley was the classic dodgy second-hand car dealer.

Come and see this car that’s just come in, he’d say. It’s in great nick and a real bargain! Gullible customers would make their way to the showroom to discover that the ‘bargain’ had just been sold. But here was an even bigger bargain – and only three times more expensive. The classic ‘bait-and-switch’ of the motor trade.

In the dying days of the Holyrood election, Blair McDougall, one of the shrewdest observers of Scottish politics, predicted that Sturgeon would resort to her very own bait-and-switch once the votes were in.

It happened even sooner that he had anticipated.

Only last month the First Minister told ITV that a vote for the SNP was ‘not voting for independence’; indeed ‘you are not even voting for another independence referendum’. It was, she stressed, all about making sure pandemic recovery was in her tried and tested hands.

Yet even before the final votes had been counted over the weekend, she was out in front of the TV cameras insisting she now had a mandate for a second referendum. It was the ‘will of the people’ and anybody who denied it was ‘picking a fight with the democratic wishes of the Scottish people’. Political bait-and-switch in action. Daley would have been proud.

In the final televised debate of the campaign last week, Sturgeon was explicitly asked what voters who think she’d be the best candidate to lead Scotland out of the pandemic but wanted no truck with another referendum should do.

‘They should vote for me,’ she said with a steely stare to the camera – and no caveat.

Earlier she had tweeted: ‘Send me back to my desk’ to deal with all the ‘vital decisions’ pandemic recovery will require. No mention of independence or referendums.

It hadn’t always been like that, though. When the campaign started it was almost all about a second referendum for the SNP.

Sturgeon needed to placate her activists, for whom independence is all that matters, and to shore up her defences against a challenge from Alex Salmond’s new, more fundamentalist Alba party. In the event it crashed and burned on its first electoral outing, despite claiming the backing of King of the Scots, Robert the Bruce – who died around 700 years ago – in one of its commercials.

There had even been SNP talk of concocting a phrase using the words ‘referendum’ and ‘mandate’ to put beside the party’s name on the ballot paper.

But as the campaign progressed, SNP strategists quickly realised there was little appetite for a second referendum on the doorstep, in polls or among focus groups.

So the emphasis switched to Saint Nicola safely and confidently leading her people out of Covid.

Millions of leaflets were distributed bigging this up – and making no mention of independence. It was a shrewd move.

Rightly or wrongly, most Scots perceive Sturgeon to have had a ‘good’ pandemic. Many Scots with little interest in independence still wanted her to handle what remains of the Covid threat.

She was boosted by the successful vaccine rollout, even though that was a benefit of being part of the United Kingdom she wants to leave.

Her failure to win an overall majority has detracted from the scale of her success.

Even with the vaccine boost and almost nightly unchallenged appearances on the BBC for over a year in her ‘saviour of the nation’ mode, the SNP effectively did no better than it did in the 2016 Scottish elections.

Her people are now arguing that, even though the SNP is just short of an overall majority, there is now a clear majority in Holyrood for a second referendum because the Greens also ran on an independence ticket.

The Greens added two seats taking them to eight, which means 72 out of 129 Holyrood MSPs would vote for a second referendum.

But a majority in the Scottish parliament is not the same as a mandate from the people. We’ve seen how Sturgeon ran on her handling of the pandemic rather than an independence referendum. The Green vote is hardly unequivocal support for a referendum either.

During the campaign, the Greens assured voters they could vote for an environmental agenda without endorsing a second referendum or independence. Moreover, a recent extensive poll showed that a majority of Green voters are not in favour of independence. No mandate there, then.

That’s not all. The popular vote split 50:50 for separatist and Unionist parties last Thursday. Not quite a resounding clarion call for independence. Polls show only 36 per cent of Scots think a Holyrood majority for a referendum is a mandate for one; 46 per cent don’t. Most Scots want Holyrood to improve public services not divorce from England.

Scotland’s constitutional position is only the eighth most important issue for Scots, not that you’d know it from the Scottish news broadcasters. There was a spike for independence a year ago when Sturgeon was perceived to be doing well and Boris Johnson badly (in truth, neither were doing well, Sturgeon was just the better communicator). But in the last ten polls of the election campaign, only one put ‘yes’ to independence in the lead.

The most recent polls show support for separatism roughly where it was in 2014 – hovering around 45 per cent, a consistency of opinion that doesn’t give cause for another referendum. That’s also how the Scottish people see it.

Only around one in four agree with Sturgeon’s timetable for a referendum – before the end of 2023, which in reality means May or June of that year; only 45 per cent want one during the five years of the new parliament; over 50 per cent don’t want one within five years or ever.

None of this will deter Sturgeon from pushing through a new referendum bill in the Scottish parliament and challenging the Johnson administration to go to court to veto it.

She has no choice. If there was even an inkling that she was not going to strive for a second referendum her position would be untenable in her own party, whatever her current success.

The longer the SNP has been in power, the more it has developed viviparous tendencies. It was once fearsomely monolithic. Now it falls out over matters as diverse as transgender rights and Alex Salmond. Independence is the super-glue that keeps it together.

If that was to be kicked into the long grass there would likely be a bloodbath.

The next crisis for the Union will come when Holyrood approves a referendum bill and challenges Westminster to go to the Supreme Court to strike it down as illegal, which it would be.

But the Johnson government need not fall into that trap.

What if a private citizen took the Scottish Government to Scotland’s Court of Session, the highest court north of border, on the grounds that its referendum bill was illegal? Canny Unionists are thinking of a Scottish Gina Miller, the wealthy woman who used the English courts to cause the Brexiteers such pain.

I am advised that such a challenge would be likely to succeed – and it wouldn’t even involve Boris Johnson. It would leave Sturgeon the option of a wildcat referendum, either illegal or of no more binding significance than a massive state-financed opinion poll, one the Unionists would boycott, condemning it to irrelevance.

By no stretch of the imagination can the Scottish election results be described as a boost for the Union. But it is far from the car crash some have reported.

Sturgeon is triumphant for now but there are massive pitfalls ahead. The Unionists still have time to get their show back on the road. But they haven’t a moment to waste.

The economic case for independence is weaker than it was in 2014. But that is not enough.

The Unionists need to make a bold, visionary and positive case for the Union. These elections have cut them some slack. Time they got on with it.

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