On 24 March, two of the SNP MP’s most closely aligned to Nicola Sturgeon, Stewart MacDonald and Alyn Smith, asked for a meeting with the British internal security service MI5 to discuss cooperation against Russia. MI5 is the agency charged with countering perceived internal threats to the UK state; Scottish nationalists, environmentalists and anti-nuclear campaigners are among MI5’s major targets. Until a few years ago, the vast majority of Scottish Independence supporters would have regarded MI5 as a particularly egregious manifestation of their traditional enemy, the British state. Yet here was the SNP officially – MacDonald and Smith are the party’s Westminster defence and foreign affairs spokesmen – calling for cooperation with MI5.
To add to this extraordinary volte-face, there is no doubt that what lay behind MacDonald and Smith’s move was a desire to activate MI5 more openly against Scottish Independence supporters. Not only are they referencing Alex Salmond’s programme on RT and Tommy Sheridan’s spot for Sputnik, both Smith and MacDonald have been heavily involved in the long-term campaign to vilify online Independence activists and bloggers as Russian agents.
This is from the author of the above article, David Leask’s briefing to the secret UK government funded propaganda programme, the Integrity Initiative (emphasis in original):
For me and a great many other Scottish nationalists, our opponent is the British state. Why Russia should be viewed as the enemy of an Independent Scotland, just because it is in foreign policy opposition to the state whose imperial rule we are trying to leave, is not plain to us. Indeed, a different and more pacific foreign policy is a key benefit many of us see from leaving the UK. MacDonald and Smith – and there is no doubt they are licensed by Sturgeon, who put them in these positions – have no wish to challenge the UK’s role as a reliable, neo-con foreign policy satrap of the USA. They even put out a defence paper espousing multilateralism rather than the traditional SNP policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, to remarkably little adverse reaction.
On the annual UN International Day of Solidarity With Palestine I noted on Twitter that, while many Labour and even Liberal MPs had tweeted to support, no SNP MP or MSP had. I was contacted by a well-known SNP MSP who informed me that they had been instructed not to speak out on Palestine – something which the SNP has in fact noticeably stopped doing. Stewart MacDonald’s own full time research assistant had the most rabidly pro-Israel Twitter history I have ever seen, with numerous tweets or retweets specifically praising the Israeli Defence Force but virtually none mentioning Scottish Independence. I have been struck recently by how many of the fierce online Twitter proponents of Nicola Sturgeon include Israeli symbols in their Twitter profile. Again this is a real break with the traditional pro-Palestinian stance of Scottish nationalists.
Sociological analysis of what has happened appears fairly simple. The SNP has been in power in Scotland for 14 years, and while the devolved administration is far from a genuine state, an annual Holyrood budget of £30 billion represents a very great deal of power and patronage. For those interested in exercising or benefiting from such power and patronage, the SNP has become the way to go. It has become the political Establishment in Scotland, and those with Establishment attitudes have flocked to it. All the political careerists who would previously have belonged to once-dominant Labour, have for over a decade flocked into the SNP. So have others with domestic agendas they wish to promote – often genuinely worthy, in devolved fields such as health and education – but who have at best a passing interest in Independence. The SNP has therefore entirely lost its radical edge.
For these new members, MI5 is a perfectly respectable part of the political Establishment. These people in no way see themselves as rebels, whereas the “old SNP”, even its grandees like my old friend Gordon Wilson, first and foremost viewed themselves as rebels.
Gordon Wilson was involved in the pirate “Radio Free Scotland” and the temporary liberation from Westminster Abbey of the stone of Scone. Can you imagine the condemnation from Sturgeon, Smith and MacDonald of such illegal actions today? They would be demanding meetings with MI5 on how to stop it.
Let me now turn to Nicola Sturgeon herself. As an entry point, I take Saturday’s interview where she stated she intended to serve a full five years as First Minister, and had not made up her mind about the 2026 election.
The extraordinary thing is that Nicola Sturgeon looks explicitly five years into her political future with no reference at all to the possibility that Scotland will be an independent state before then. The thought simply does not cross her mind.
Now there is no question you could ask me about what will happen in Scotland in five years, or what I personally will be doing in five years, to which I would not automatically start my answer with the observation that within five years I expect Scotland to be Independent, and the context will therefore be very different. And I am not First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon’s answer presumes she will continue to do her current job, and there will be an election under the current system, in five years.
She does not take into account the real possibility that following Independence it must be very likely there will be early elections to a new parliament. She does not take into account the real possibility that following Independence the SNP – which contains people of widely differing economic ideologies – might split. She does not take into account the real possibility that following Independence there will be a much broader realignment of political parties, as all but hardcore unionists accommodate to the new reality. She does not take into account the real possibility that an Independent Scotland may have a very different parliament, perhaps with two chambers and a different electoral system. She does not take into account that there might not be a First Minister in five years time – there may, for example, be an executive presidency.
No, when Nicola looks ahead she instinctively sees five more years of comfortable residency of Bute House as a benevolent and humane colonial administrator, who supports Independence in principle, but only if Westminster agrees, which she knows will not happen, and once Covid and its economic consequences, and all the other tough things that must be dealt with before she is ready, are out of the way.
And who knows when that will be? Not in the next five years certainly, in the mind of Nicola. Independence did not even occur to her as a factor that might affect her answer.
I have been sounding a warning that Nicola has no intention of achieving Scottish Independence, consistently since 2015. We have had SNP conferences with the word “Independence” not featuring even once in the entire agenda. We have had US Democratic Party Style slogans such as “Hope” and “Change” but never “Independence”. We had the 2016 Holyrood Election where Nicola declared she wanted unionists to feel “safe” voting for the SNP. We had the disastrous 2017 Westminster General Election campaign which Nicola fought entirely on the basis of “Don’t accuse me of pushing for Independence. It is not me that keeps banging on about Independence, it’s the Tories”.
With the large majority of Scots having voted in favour of remaining in the EU, and with the 2016 Holyrood manifesto having promised a new referendum in the event of “a material change in circumstances”, and with a solid SNP/Green majority in Holyrood, Brexit was obviously the ideal occasion for a Scottish Independence referendum. Instead we had Nicola devote two years to the campaign to keep the whole of the UK in the European Union.
I never agreed that the SNP should be striving to keep the entire UK in the EU, firstly because the effect of that would have been to help keep the UK together, which is the opposite of what the SNP is supposed to be trying to achieve; secondly because we Scots have no right to thwart the democratic will of the people of England and Wales who clearly voted leave.
To anybody who believes in Independence the answer was for Scotland to respect its democratic vote against Brexit by moving to Independence and staying in the EU, allowing Westminster to Wexit. Instead of seizing this opportunity, Sturgeon wasted two years campaigning, including in London, in what she evidently found the very congenial company of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, on a whole UK basis.
In this period she never found time to attend any of the mass marches for Scottish Independence. Her explanation was that she has to represent the entire population – which apparently did not apply to pro-EU demonstrations.
In January 2020, as the transition period came to an end and the UK firmly left the EU, the crunch time had come in which it was now or never for implementing the SNP 2016 Holyrood manifesto commitment to a new Independence referendum if there were a “material change of circumstances” – which everybody had understood meant Brexit. The SNP had repeatedly stated that Scotland would not be dragged out of the EU against its will. Would they act, or was that just hot air?
On 31 January 2020, the very day transition ended, Sturgeon made a showcase speech – in which she announced that she accepted that, as Johnson had refused a S30 request, there was no legal path to Scottish Independence.
For me to pretend that there are shortcuts or clever wheezes that can magically overcome the obstacles we face might make my life easier in the short term – but it would do a long term disservice to the independence cause that I, like so many, have dedicated my life to.
My job is to lead us down a credible path that can deliver independence.
And that is what I am absolutely determined to do.
To achieve independence, a referendum, whenever it happens – whether it is this year as I want, or after the next Scottish election – must be legal and legitimate. That is a simple fact.
It must demonstrate that there is majority support for independence.
And its legality must be beyond doubt. Otherwise the outcome, even if successful, would not be recognised by other countries.
And the best way to achieve that, even though it may not be ideal, is to reach agreement on a transfer of power to the Scottish Parliament, just as we did for 2014.
It has been suggested, though, that in the absence of such an agreement, it might be legal for the Scottish Parliament to hold a consultative referendum – to establish the opinion of the Scottish people even though agreement would still be required to implement a pro independence outcome.
So let me address that.
The issue of whether the specific constitutional reservation in the Scotland Act puts any form of independence referendum outside the powers of the Scottish Parliament – or instead leaves open scope for a non-binding consultative vote – has never been tested in court.
That means it cannot be said definitively that it would not be legal, but equally it cannot be described as being beyond legal doubt.
If a proposal for a referendum on that basis was brought forward it would be challenged in court.
If a court ruled that it was legal, it wouldn’t be a “wildcat referendum” as our opponents like to brand it – it would be within the power of the Scottish Parliament.
Should the UK Government continue to deny Scotland’s right to choose, we may reach the point where this issue does have to be tested.
I am not ruling that out.
But I also have to be frank. The outcome would be uncertain. There would be no guarantees.
It could move us forward – but equally it could set us back.
So my judgment at this stage is that we should use our energies differently.
To placate the pro-Independence wing of the SNP, she adopted a suggestion which is genuinely my own. I had formulated it four years earlier in June 2016, written about it frequently since, and pushed the idea in pro-Independence meetings the length and breadth of Scotland, including to SNP branches. In her speech, Sturgeon said:
In the first instance we will invite Scotland’s elected representatives – MSPs, MPs, the MEPs elected last year and council leaders – to come together to endorse a modern Claim of Right for Scotland through a new Constitutional Convention.
To declare that it is for the Scottish Parliament to decide whether and when there should be an independence choice and build support for that principle amongst civic Scotland.
In June 2016 I had written:
To resolve this requires a supplementing of current constitutional arrangements. The First Minister should therefore convene a National Convention consisting of all Scotland’s elected national representatives – its MEPs, MPs and MSPs united in a single democratic body merged on a one member one vote basis.
This body should draw up recommendations for the independence referendum, including on the future constitution, economy including currency, and international alliances of an independent Scotland, and should oversee negotiations with the EU. The next referendum could therefore present voters with a more definite prospectus for what the new Scotland will look like.
The world has changed radically. We must not be afraid to think outside the UK prescribed box in defining Scottish solutions.
I can find no evidence anywhere of anybody writing or promoting this idea other than me. I was surprised at the time that Sturgeon had picked up one of my ideas, but I should not have been. She did not mean it, it was only a sop to Independence supporters, the National Convention never happened and has been quietly dropped. Something else quietly dropped at the time was the 2020 SNP Spring Conference, which was cancelled in order to avoid member blowback from the abandonment of the 2016 Indyref2 mandate. In the confusion of the last year, people forget that the SNP Spring Conference was cancelled before most people had heard the word Covid, and Covid was emphatically not the cause.
More significantly, Sturgeon’s government intervened against the legal attempt by Martin Keatings and Forward as One to establish that the Scottish parliament had a right to hold an Independence referendum. Sturgeon thus helped to prevent what she still pretends to be her ultimate objective.
The truth is that Sturgeon loves being the darling of the Guardian. Her policies are simply those of Hillary Clinton – a rigorous system of identity politics, largely based around gender, with a few populist but not targeted spending measures – free tuition, personal care etc – but no effort to develop a critique of the factors that drive the massive wealth inequalities in society. Indeed, her economics are rigorously neo-liberal as embodied in her infamous “Growth Commission”, and she has notoriously chosen Benny Higgins, investment banker Chairman of Buccleuch Estates, as an economic adviser (and appointed that other right wing investment banker, Ian Blackford, as party leader in Westminster).
Like Hillary, Nicola’s neo-liberal economics are bound up with extreme hawkish cheerleading for neo-imperialist foreign policy – hence her instant support for Boris Johnson over the ludicrous Skripal narrative, over the ludicrous Douma narrative, over Ukraine, and her sanctioning of Russians under the Beds activities with MI5. Ian Blackford even called directly in parliament for the UK to enact regime change in Syria.
The relentless pursuit of gender identity politics has led to the peculiar fracture in the Independence movement over trans rights, where both sides of the debate invent utterly unreasonable positions and attribute them to the other side. Sturgeon has done everything possible to hammer this wedge issue into a fracture among Independence supporters, largely with the intent of damaging Joanna Cherry and others she views as rivals (and as someone who unflinchingly supports trans rights myself, I should say that Joanna’s views are much misrepresented and far more nuanced than generally understood).
The attempt to have Alex Salmond convicted on false allegations by team Nicola was the ultimate shot at discrediting the part of the SNP that was focused primarily on Independence, and ensuring the triumph of a new SNP focused primarily on identity politics, supportive of the neo-imperialism of the British state, and not interested in risking power for Independence.
The fascinating thing in all this is that the mainstream media, overwhelmingly unionist (particularly the BBC), realises that Nicola Sturgeon is not an authentic danger to the union, and therefore swung its weight very solidly behind Sturgeon, particularly in its reporting of the conduct of the Holyrood and Hamilton Inquiries and their outcomes. The unionists understand full well it is Salmond who threatens the union, whereas Sturgeon is very comfortable atop the devolution structure.
Yet there are still very many ordinary SNP members who are firmly committed to Scottish Independence, who believe that Sturgeon also is committed to Scottish Independence, and despite the history of the last seven years expect that she will deliver a referendum sometime. They have been played along ruthlessly, with the SNP in Holyrood introducing a number of utterly meaningless enabling bills and draft bills for a referendum to keep the troops happy.
After winning numerous Westminster and Holyrood elections while Sturgeon does nothing on Independence, the SNP asks people to believe that this time, this time they are serious, and really will have an Indyref2. But a great many terms and conditions apply and Sturgeon has still not stated she will support the defiance of a purported Westminster veto. It remains the fact that at this Holyrood election, the only chance most voters have of demonstrating support for Independence in the constituency vote, is to vote SNP. But should Nicola get her wish of five peaceful and personally prosperous years in Bute House as First Minister, that will never be the case again.
This is why we have the paradox that it is the most devoted, longest serving members of the SNP who have left the party to join Alba. Take Kenny MacAskill, an SNP member for more than forty years. Kenny was a member of the party in the days when it was a definite career disadvantage to be so, who pounded the streets in wind and rain for decades clapping doors, facing jibes and jeers with no realistic hope of being elected. I have now seen him roundly abused on Twitter and described as a “unionist plant” by people who have only joined the SNP since it has been the easy route to personal power in Scotland, and who are primarily motivated by identity politics.
One strange result of this is that it is the backbone of the SNP, the committed members who go round delivering the leaflets, who are more likely to vote Alba on the list vote than the ordinary SNP voter. One friend who was recently distributing election leaflets to SNP members who had volunteered for delivery, told me he had asked what people thought about the list, and 12 out of 13 SNP leafleteers were not going to vote SNP with their list vote, on the ground it is wasted (he did not ask them precisely who would get their list vote between Alba and the Greens).
It is the more committed SNP members who realise that the bizarre mathematics of the D’Hondt electoral system render a SNP list vote utterly futile in three quarters of the country and very severely devalued in the rest.
Equally it is the most active of SNP members who realise the party is continually backsliding over Independence. They studied the text of Nicola’s speeches and note the constant caveat about a “legal” referendum. It was the most active of SNP members who followed closely the actual evidence of the Salmond affair, as opposed to the biased reporting, and realised what was really happening. This turbulence among the most committed members in the depth of the SNP is simply swept over by the vast current of mainstream media adulation of Nicola. We therefore have a remarkable situation of an enormously popular leader at odds with nobody but the most engaged members of her own party – unless you count as engaged the more recent accretion of her Praetorian Guard of identity politics warriors.
It was interesting to watch SNP followers on Twitter change over the course of three months from absolute denial that Team Sturgeon were involved in acting against Salmond, to a position that Team Sturgeon were quite right to act against Salmond because he is an appalling man. A similar transition is in progress, from denial that Team Sturgeon have failed to act on a referendum, to a position that Team Sturgeon were right not to have a referendum because we would have lost it.
We started the last referendum campaign at 28% to 32% and got to 45% on polling day. That is what a campaign can do. There has been zero Independence campaigning from the SNP since. The notion that a campaign that would have started at 48 to 58 per cent, depending on timing, would have failed is simply daft.
I have been delighted to hear Alex Salmond speak on behalf of Alba of alternatives to the S30 approach and even of the fact that there are routes to Independence that do not involve referenda. This is where the debate must lie. The majority of countries in the entire world became independent in the course of my own lifetime. In only a very small minority of cases did the process involve a referendum. The International Court of Justice has ruled that the legislation of the state being seceded from, is not the determining factor of whether a state can successfully become independent in international law. If you think about it carefully, that must be true, or Estonia would still be Soviet and Slovenia would be Yugoslav.
The real split in the Independence movement is between those who truly believe the Scots are a people with the right of self-determination as enshrined in the UN Charter, and those who believe we need London permission to be “legal” and therefore, by definition, do not have the right of self-determination.
To put it more bluntly, Whitehall will never willingly accept the loss of Scotland’s magnificent resources – including maritime, energy, water, food and drink, hydrocarbon and other mineral, education, and above all human resources. Unlike Nicola Sturgeon, many of us do not believe that Johnson can simply stop Scottish Independence by declaring it illegal. We are prepared to take the steps that will be required, in terms of non-violent political action and possibly including civil disobedience on a national scale, for Scotland to be able to become independent.
That is the cause of the different paths now being taken in the Independence movement. That is the difference between the SNP and Alba. Do you really want Independence, or is it just a genteel discussion point?
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