Nicola Sturgeon faces calls from veteran independence activists to “trust the yes movement”, as MPs and MSPs struggle to unite around her “de facto referendum” plan amid fears it could kill off independence as a prospect for decades if it fails.
Sturgeon confirmed that the Scottish National party would run the next general election as a “de facto referendum” on Wednesday after the supreme court ruled that her government could not legislate for a second independence vote without Westminster’s approval, which has been consistently refused.
But while Scottish opposition leaders said they would not engage with the plan, those on the pro-independence side have many questions about the strategy and how it will be decided at a special party conference in the new year.
“It will be a leap to get everyone to buy into it, even on one side of the argument,” said one SNP MP. Another MSP noted Sturgeon’s “pragmatic” appearance at the rally outside Holyrood last night, alongside speakers from across the independence movement.
Lesley Riddoch, who organised the rally, said: “The idea of the SNP having a meeting to decide this is not OK, and it doesn’t lever the enormous energy we saw at the rallies across Scotland last night.”
Riddoch is leading calls for a constitutional convention that is “ambitious, inclusive, reaches beyond party boundaries and trusts the yes movement”.
The need to harness the diversity of the wider movement for the next stage was echoed by SNP MP Joanna Cherry, who said such a convention had been proposed by Sturgeon herself on Brexit Day 2020.
Among SNP politicians, most admit – as does Sturgeon herself – this is not the preferred strategy, not least because of widespread acknowledgment that, as one MSP puts it, “if we don’t win it this time, independence is dead for a good few decades”.
Most recognise Sturgeon’s rebranding of the independence movement as “Scotland’s democracy movement” to be a smart move that scoops up wavering voters and throws the ball back into Westminster’s court. But there are significant concerns within MSP and MP groups about the practical detail of the “de facto” strategy and how widely they will be consulted about it.
The SNP’s defence spokesperson in Westminster, Stewart McDonald, urged colleagues on Twitter to ensure the plan was “legal, democratic and sound” and “must be able to lead to independence”, and encouraged politicians to “shun talk of being imprisoned or shackled”. Yesterday, Sturgeon told reporters that she would not “allow Scottish democracy to be a prisoner of Westminster”.
Another Westminster source suggests the leadership is aware of the need to “widen the circle”, especially as MPs will be on the frontline in a general election.
Beyond the SNP, Chris McEleny, a former SNP councillor who first mooted the de facto plan at a party conference in 2019, where he was booed off stage by delegates, and who has since defected to Alex Salmond’s Alba, said this was “a good plan implemented in the worst possible way”.
He raised the exclusion of younger voters and EU citizens at a general election, the apparent plan to measure success by votes rather than seats, and a lack of cross-party discussion. “The Alba position is that we need a single unifying candidate in each seat under a joint manifesto pledge of independence for Scotland,” he added.
Scottish Greens, who are in government with the SNP at Holyrood, have said they are fielding a full slate of candidates with the pledge that a vote for the Greens is a vote for independence. Their votes could be crucial in tipping pro-independence votes beyond the 50% mark.
Not all independence campaigners are convinced by the de facto plan: Jonathon Shafi, who organised the Radical Independence Campaign in 2014, describes it as a “losing strategy … [a general election] is not the way to make a decision about independence, and it’s lacking international recognition and domestic legitimacy”.
Shafi argues that the constraints of a general election would make it much harder to reach out and inspire people to vote yes beyond party politics, as happened at the last referendum.
Pat Kane, board member of the left-green thinktank Common Weal, notes how much of the commentary over the past 24 hours has focused on the future of Sturgeon rather than embracing the opportunity to “correct a deficit”. “We now have a two-year window for arguing about better policy, institutions and planning for independence”.
Kane, who was previously on the Yes Scotland advisory board throughout the 2014 campaign, added: “Sturgeon and her circle do need to trust the independence movement as a social phenomenon more than they have in the past few years. This can’t be a top-down, safety-first affair, or they will miss their mark.”
Stephen Noon, chief strategist of the 2014 yes campaign, said he was “hugely encouraged” by Sturgeon’s stance yesterday. “She got balance right, taking a step back and taking the decision to the SNP conference,” he said. “She recognises her position as the custodian of the wider movement and wants to engage with it.”