How a flood of SNP MPs could lead to independence
Nicola Sturgeon's focus on pacts and deals masks a broader agenda: flooding parliament with Scottish nationalists in a bid to accelerate the drift towards independence.
The first minister's speech today is entirely focused on the potential role the SNP could play in hung parliament negotiations today.
That is what this election is all about, after all. With the Scottish independence issue sorted for a generation after last year's No victory, we can all forget about nationalism and concentrate on what is at stake on May 7th – who governs the country for the next five years.
When the stakes are the future of our country, that thinking is horribly short-sighted.
A new poll out today points to a truth not many in Westminster are prepared to admit right now: this year's election is only going to pave the way for another referendum in the future.
The University of Edinburgh survey found 69% of people believe Scotland will eventually leave the UK. That's only marginally higher than the 59% who live in England who think the same thing.
"We shouldn't mistake this as support for independence itself," Dr Jan Eichhorn of the University of Edinburgh tells Politics.co.uk.
"What it means is people in Scotland and every other part of the UK are not thinking the issue is going away. Some of those people might want it to go away, but they do think that this issue matters."
His analysis makes sense. The referendum dominated last year and has triggered a constitutional upheaval which goes well beyond who runs Holyrood. It has created a wave of momentum which a majority of people now accept is not going to be halted easily.
The nationalists sensed this before the rest of us did. That was why, in George Square in Glasgow on referendum night, they were so euphoric. They knew they had started something which would not simply fade away and be forgotten about.
George Square has been renamed – not sure if Robert Burns approves pic.twitter.com/HfDvs8GIui
— Alex Stevenson (@Alex__Stevenson) September 19, 2014
Back then their predictions that the Scots would vote for the SNP in Westminster seemed implausible. Now the expectation is that they could win as many as 56 of Scotland's 59 seats. That possibility will skew the 2015 election result and make the SNP key players in deciding who becomes our next prime minister. It's a fascinating prospect and not at all surprising that we want to examine its implications. But it distracts us from the bigger picture – that the independence issue remains as significant as ever.
What flooding Westminster with MPs will do is help propagate the nationalists' permanent presence on the scene. They are adopting one of the most tried and tested strategies of war: the envelopment of the enemy. Cutting off escape routes, shutting down your opponent's flexibility, triggering a psychological collapse long before the actual practical options for resistance are exhausted. What the SNP is doing to the rest of Britain is imposing an unrelenting pressure which creates its own conclusion.
But it is a steady incremental process, not a quick one. After the referendum the SNP's initial strategy was to complain about broken promises. That ultimately led to Sturgeon raising the possibility of a second referendum if Britain is set to leave the EU. But the University of Edinburgh's polling has found only 45% of Scots back her on that and the numbers are even lower elsewhere in the UK.
So instead the nationalists should look to a longer-term goal of achieving independence in the next few decades, not the next few years.
They should be encouraged because today's research also finds that the Scottish independence really has motivated political views north of the border. The 85% turnout figure in the independence referendum itself wasn't ever going to be repeated in a Westminster election, but Eichhorn says people in Scotland nevertheless do now have a higher likelihood of voting in a normal election because of it. Around three-quarters north of the border say they are certain to vote, compared to around 60% elsewhere. And many of them want to talk about how Britain is governed. "Some of that political engagement is moving beyond just the simple proposition that people engaged with the referendum because that was an easy issue," Eichhorn adds. "We see something lasting here."
So, it seems, do British voters. They understand that this increased engagement is a direct response to Scottish nationalism. Those seeking independence have mobilised the debate and may sooner or later win it.
Today's speech from Sturgeon fits that long-term plan. Dominating the attention of the Westminster enemy is the first step towards a successful psychological envelopment. By making themselves impossible to ignore, with choices narrowing and alternative futures fading away, the SNP's strategy might be closer to fulfilment than any of us think.