Does Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have the courage to challenge Scotland and her own side?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, September 4th 2016

This week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched a major new initiative on independence.

At the moment she is playing for time – waiting to see the developing post-Brexit landscape, Theresa May’s hand with Article 50 and the broad outline of the deal the UK is proposing with the EU.

There are numerous factors at work. Sturgeon has to be seen doing something. She has to appear in charge and doing something on independence. Plus there is the small issue of keeping 120,000 members busy and engaged, 80% of who weren’t in the SNP two years ago.

It has taken two years from the indyref for the SNP to get to this – a listening exercise. That is, to put it mildly, slow progress and not exactly prioritising independence. What have the SNP leadership been up to in these two years, apart from perma-campaigning? Aren’t politicians able to multi-task?

The United Kingdom has changed since the 2014 indyref. But are the details around independence different? On such practicalities there is only mystery, for the SNP – and wider Yes movement – have engaged in no systematic, rigorous post-mortem on their defeat.

One of the virtues of losing any vote is that it offers a release and liberation from flawed politics, and with this the opportunity for growth and renewal. Labour’s electoral humiliation in 1983 was a cathartic turning point; the same was true to a lesser extent of the Tories in 2005.

Two years after the indyref the SNP have not reflected on why they lost and why Better Together won. The answer won’t be found in the clichés and easy answers of blaming Gordon Brown or the Vow.

Leadership is a tough call. It involves making difficult choices. It entails telling people truths they don’t want to hear. So far the SNP, despite its huge dominance, has consciously chosen not to go down that road.

Nicola Sturgeon commands all before her in the party and our politics. Now is the ideal time to tell some inconvenient truths. The zealots are a problem. The faith-based politics of some is a barrier. The ‘Big Tent’ vision of independence of 2014 is dead – as is the economic illiteracy of that offer.

There is a potential terrain for a future independence proposal but it doesn’t involve browbeating or insulting the 55%. Or asking frankly insulting questions such as ‘Are You Yes Yet?’ That begs Yes for what, Yes for what kind of independence and what kind of Scotland? Such detail doesn’t cross the radar of the true believer.

A future independence offer entails being honest about tough choices ahead. About public spending cuts and austerity in at least the first five years of independence. There is according to Scottish Government figures on taxes raised and monies spent in Scotland, a sizeable deficit – and that has to be dealt with funding it and the kind of deal done with the rest of the UK on sharing joint assets.

Scotland has two big cards to play – Trident sitting in Scottish waters and, where Scotland sits in terms of the North Atlantic passageways that mattered so much in the Cold War and do again under Putin.

Nicola Sturgeon’s tone and style in her period as First Minister has been a good one and a welcome change from her predecessor. But it has frankly been a bit, dull, lacking in zest, imagination and ambition.

Next year marks ten years of the SNP in office. The party needs to start critiquing its own record and limitations to have any chance of renewing and keeping its vigour. The true believers have their faith; the rest of us need something more tangible.

This week the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation came out showing the inequality, poverty and affluent areas of Scotland. There was much that was grim and much predictable. Ferguslie Park in Paisley came out the most deprived area, yet is surrounded by nearby affluence.

Scotland is painfully divided but not on independence, but poverty and life chances. I want to hear from Nicola Sturgeon – given her commitment to social justice – a sense of burning indignation and desire to change things for the better. I want to see social justice made a national priority, with detailed policies from the Government, and at the same time, a demand for Westminster to do more.

Do that, combined with honesty and reflection on why you lost the indyref and you make the case for independence. You show and lead – by example – the kind of Scotland you aspire to. Next week would be a good place to start with the new programme of government, but does the SNP and Sturgeon have the courage to challenge us and its own side?