EDDIE BARNES: Nicola Sturgeon is like a faded tribute act to her old self, banging out the same tunes to an audience no longer listening
This morning, my neighbours here in Glasgow were going about their normal business: dodging yet another rainstorm as it swept in from the Atlantic and wondering which game to watch in the World Cup.
Meanwhile, in London, the judges of the Supreme Court emerged to give their verdict on whether Scotland would have to endure another referendum on independence next year.
In the world occupied by Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP, this was a moment of destiny. Scotland would not tolerate being told ‘No’ by a court of judges in London. This was the moment we would rise up against the tyranny of English rule. But across Scotland, it’s not going like that at all.
Yes, pro-independence supporters were out in force tonight to protest after the judges concluded – to nobody’s surprise – that Miss Sturgeon could not unilaterally decide to hold a referendum that might tear apart the United Kingdom.
And yes, in Edinburgh, Miss Sturgeon was out immediately afterwards to crank up the grievance. The decision of the judges, she thundered, ‘exposes as myth any notion of the UK as a voluntary partnership’.
Yet her theatrics prompted little outrage. On the streets and in the shops and bars of Scotland yesterday, there was the sound of indifference, not insurrection.
The self-styled nationalist movement is not quite going to plan. Indeed, the inconvenient truth for the SNP is that a group of judges down south have spoken for the Scottish majority.
Nicola Sturgeon gives a speech at a Scottish Independence rally outside Holyrood in Edinburgh tonight
Most Scots don’t want Miss Sturgeon’s referendum. Many have had enough of the endless and constitutionally dangerous games. The big question we ask now isn’t when another vote is taking place; it’s about whether Miss Sturgeon and her party are finally running out of steam. Is it the end for Nicola?
First, a note of caution. The SNP is still the most popular party in Scotland by far. And Scotland is very far from settled within the family of the United Kingdom. Polls show the nation remains stuck at about 50-50 when it comes to the question of in or out. The UK’s continued survival is still far from guaranteed.
But something in Scotland has palpably changed. Both Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond once had a canny knack for expressing the popular mood north of the border. Miss Sturgeon in particular always hugged the centre-ground close, making sure that she kept conservative, cautious, ‘Middle Scotland’ happy. What has changed – and what yesterday’s events have further exposed – is the growing gap between that centre ground and Miss Sturgeon’s separatist obsession.
In their sober way, the judges burst her balloon. For on this, the biggest question facing the country, it is clear: she no longer speaks for Scotland.
It is partly a function of the times.
Like everyone else in the UK, Scots find themselves rather more preoccupied with the rising cost of living just now than they do about Miss Sturgeon’s fantasy of ‘freedom’. Independence may be the last of your worries when your gas bill has trebled and inflation is running in double digits.
With their country under impossible strain – from collapsing educational standards to record numbers of drug deaths – Scots are also growing more than a little angry about the declining state of public services and, in particular, the appalling condition of the NHS here. Ultimate responsibility: one Nicola Sturgeon.
Indeed, the Supreme Court ruling wasn’t even the biggest story in Scotland this week. That emerged on Monday when documents leaked to the BBC revealed that things are so bad in the Scottish NHS that health chiefs are considering whether better-off Scots should be charged directly for medical treatment.
Miss Sturgeon once rode popular support because she was seen to be putting such domestic matters first.
Yet Scots now see a leader spending more and more of her well-remunerated time on a personal cause that has little relevance to the challenges her country faces.
Despite her yanking every lever of grievance and fury she could find, most polls show that only a third of Scots want to hold a referendum next year, as she wanted. But the SNP has failed to appreciate or even acknowledge that many Scots still feel that one referendum was enough for the time being.
Nicola Sturgeon looks at the ground as she waits to speak at tonight’s Time For Scotland pro-independence rally at Holyrood
The memory of the 2014 vote still holds strong. So when Miss Sturgeon insists that Scotland’s democracy is being ‘denied’, she comes across as frankly unhinged. It is hard to attack the British Government as the enemy of democracy when everyone remembers that a fair and legal vote that might have ended the United Kingdom was held so recently.
Of course, not so long ago, the SNP’s plan for ‘indyref2’ was fuelled by Brexit. Back in 2016, a majority of Scots opposed Britain’s departure from the EU. But here too, the mood has changed.
Scots have noted that many of the issues thrown up by Brexit – such as frictions in trade – would apply with bells on if Scotland divorced itself from the UK. They note too that when asked to set out clear answers on what would happen – on a new currency, on borders, and pensions, to name but three – the SNP leader suddenly comes over rather coy.
And having now gone through two bitterly fought referendums in less than a decade, voters here have become warier about the idea of using a third as a kind of penalty shoot-out, with one side celebrating victory and the other left bereft.
Perhaps most damaging for the SNP, however, are the simple effects of time. It is now 15 years since the party won power here. Since then, the debate over independence has raged without pause.
Scottish Independence supporters wave flags at a rally outside Holyrood in Edinburgh tonight
All political movements eventually run out of steam. The nationalist party never stops banging on about its single major policy, but as they say in Glasgow: ‘Gie’ us peace!’
So what does Miss Sturgeon do next? Earlier this year, she announced that if the Supreme Court ruled against her, she would turn the next UK General Election, likely to be held in 2024, into a ‘de facto referendum’. The logic seems to be that if the SNP wins more than 50 per cent of the vote in that election, she will take that as a vote for independence. It sounds to many of us like the kind of idea dreamt up after a long night out on Sauchiehall Street.
To be clear, the SNP is still on course to win a majority of seats at the next general election. For some 40 per cent of Scots, independence is everything. Unionists on both sides of the border must therefore tread carefully; while Scots do not want a referendum any time soon, belligerent talk at Westminster ruling out a second vote would send support through the roof.
Nonetheless, there is growing optimism that while the SNP fox may not yet be shot, it has at least been clipped.
Today was supposed to fire the starting gun on a Scottish revolution. Instead it went off like a wet firework.
Miss Sturgeon once carried all before her. Today she resembles a faded tribute act to her former self, banging out the old songs to an audience that is no longer listening.
The SNP will keep going with its relentless bid to break up Britain. But toiling under the weight of its own inconsistencies, evasions and mistruths, this is a party that long ago lost its veneer of dominance.
And for all those of us who hope to see a better and more united Britain after the hardships and division of the past few years, that can only be very good news.
Eddie Barnes is a campaign director of Our Scottish Future, a pro-UK think-tank, and a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail.
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