Politicians love a victory rally. But I’ve never witnessed one in celebration of defeat before.
That’s what happened after the Supreme Court ruled Nicola Sturgeon didn’t have the power to hold a second independence referendum as planned next year: Scotland’s first minister promptly gathered her supporters in Edinburgh to hear tub-thumping speeches about liberating themselves from the English oppressors.
Watching the saltire-waving crowd, I was struck by the exuberance of a bunch of people who had just been defeated.
And make no mistake, Sturgeon’s response to the Supreme Court ruling – that she’d treat the next general election as a “de facto” referendum – was almost universally seen as a gamble that she lost.
The stakes in the SNP leader’s bet have risen even higher in recent months, as Labour’s resurgence nationally – and in Scotland, under their sure-footed leader, Anas Sarwar – will surely deprive the SNP of votes at the next election. Under her own terms sketched out yesterday, if Sturgeon fails to secure 50 per cent of the vote, she’s lost her de facto referendum. And even in their best performance, the SNP has never reached that benchmark. So now, with Labour likely to make serious inroads in Scotland, her task looks tougher still.
Her predecessor, Alex Salmond, with whom she long ago parted company, twisted the knife yesterday – warning the woman he once considered his protegee that she had led his former party down a blind alley by taking the challenge to the Supreme Court.
Even Sturgeon herself seemed somewhat crestfallen. And yet…
Returning to last night’s defeat rally, it’s easy to write off the mood of the crowd as the fervour of evangelists devoted to their cause. But there’s something else that explains it too.
Could it be that Sturgeon and her crew are energised, excited even, by this fresh grievance against the Westminster establishment?
Though the Supreme Court roundly dismissed the SNP’s perennial argument that it was being oppressed; the ruling provided fresh fuel for the party’s burning resentment of the English political classes. Talking endlessly about independence – a kind of “neverendum” campaign – not only focuses the party and its grassroots on the issue they care most about, but also provides a welcome distraction from scrutiny of the Scottish government’s domestic record.
Scottish school standards compare poorly with England’s. In maths and science, for example, Scotland’s 15-year-olds lag behind England by 17 points, the lowest since 2012 in the OECD’s authoritative Pisa education rankings.
On the NHS, A&E waiting times are the worst ever – though England’s health service is admittedly struggling even more. And Scotland has the highest rate of drug deaths in Europe.
Defending all that, then, after the SNP’s 15 years in power, would be more challenging than being able to bash the Tories on their refusal to allow a second independence referendum. The SNP are themselves the establishment in Scotland, but picking a fight once again with Westminster allows them to play their preferred role of the plucky insurgents.
An exclusive Channel 4 News poll by Find Out Now in the wake of the Supreme Court decision found that 50 per cent of Scottish voters would back the SNP at the next general election if it could lead to Scotland leaving the UK.
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It’s highly risky, but going for broke on independence could still be a winning formula for Sturgeon. And Labour and the Conservatives – though they’d never admit it publicly – know that. Otherwise, if they were so confident of winning the argument on the union, they’d call the SNP’s bluff and consent to another referendum.
The president of the Supreme Court, Lord Reed of Allermuir, himself Scottish, said in his summary yesterday that the SNP’s claim to have the right of self-determination under international law existed only in situations of “former colonies or where a people is oppressed”. That, he said, “is not the position in Scotland”.
The Tories seized on that with alacrity. But it may serve the SNP’s purposes too. Because four consecutive prime ministers and the Supreme Court have now thwarted the SNP’s desire for a referendum – and the more the political and legal powers in London dig in, the more passionately can Sturgeon define herself in opposition to them.
It’s unlikely, but by no means impossible, she may yet pluck victory from the jaws of defeat.
Cathy Newman is presenter and investigations editor of Channel 4 News