Why the Ferrier incident is just a bump in the road on Scotland's march towards independence

Sean O'Grady
·4-min read
The Scottish first minister was quick to condemn her MP
The Scottish first minister was quick to condemn her MP

No doubt it was genuinely disappointing for Nicola Sturgeon to have to call on someone she calls her friend, Margaret Ferrier, to “do the right thing” and quit as an MP for breaking Covid rules. Hypocrisy is, of course, the other crime Ms Ferrier was guilty of, an even more serious offence in the statutes of the British media. The pressure on Ms Ferrier and on Ms Sturgeon is intense.

As SNP leader and first minister, Ms Sturgeon has won broad approval among the Scottish people during the Covid crisis. Her air of efficient, serious application to the task in hand has been in striking contrast to Boris Johnson’s style, and she has benefited greatly from the contrast. Although Scotland’s Covid performance has only been marginally superior to the rest of the UK, and the country has had its share of local lockdowns and personal Corona-scandals (Ms Ferrier and chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood), Ms Sturgeon has proved that in this respect at least Scotland can run its own affairs perfectly well. Support for a second referendum on independence and for independence itself has risen. If Ms Sturgeon wanted to prove that this crisis showed that Scotland was not “too wee, too poor and too stupid” to govern herself she has succeeded. Her reaction to Ms Ferrier’s misfortunes was skilfully handled in Ms Sturgeon’s daily press conference. Ms Ferrier’s resignation in a safe SNP seat will do Ms Sturgeon’s reputation no harm. Again, a flattering contrast will be drawn with Mr Johnson’s attitude to his errant chief adviser Dominic Cummings. (Ms Sturgeon was careful to mention that notorious case in her public remarks too).

Any by-election in Ms Ferrier’s Westminster seat of Rutherglen and Hamilton West would need a hefty 5 per cent swing to Scottish Labour to wrest it from the grasp of the SNP. If Labour did manage to grab it, presumably through squeezing the Conservative and Liberal Democrat (ie unionist) vote, it would be a fine start to Sir Keir Starmer’s attempt to win back Scotland to its old Labour allegiance. With the lacklustre Richard Leonard running Scottish Labour that seems unlikely, however.

Yet there are limits to the current revival in the fortunes of Scottish nationalism and the first minister. A savage attack on the first minister was launched by the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson last week. This concerns the well-reported case against Ms Sturgeon’s predecessor Alex Salmond, and, more precisely, what Ms Sturgeon knew about the allegations arraigned against him – though Mr Salmond was acquitted of all charges of sexual assault in March.

The Salmond case continues to be a distraction for the SNP, though it is not obvious that in itself it drives voters against the wider cause of independence. Despite strenuous efforts to the contrary, neither Labour nor the Conservatives have yet managed to make the charge that the SNP’s independence obsession means it is neglecting its responsibilities in education.

Ms Sturgeon’s problem isn’t that she isn’t winning, but that she isn’t winning by a sufficient margin on the issue that matters most to her – independence. After some 14 years in power, the SNP looks set for a landslide in the elections for the Scottish parliament next year. But there is a paradox here. While Scottish voters trust Ms Sturgeon to stand up for Scotland inside the UK, that doesn’t necessarily entirely translate into support for the SNP leading the country out of the union. Ms Sturgeon knows that a referendum vote of, let us say, 52 per cent for leaving the UK against 48 per cent wishing to remain in the union is a recipe for trauma. Support for independence is higher than that currently, but not by much. So Ms Sturgeon hasn’t much of a margin of safety for a second poll, and a second rejection of independence inside a decade really would put the issue out of contention for a generation. Ms Sturgeon would have to resign, and the SNP wound lose much of its raison d’etre. Labour might even make a comeback...

Brexit and Covid have made Scottish independence both more and less likely. Anger and frustration at the “English” Tory government in London has been fuelled by these twin crises, and Mr Johnson is especially loathed by many Scots, despite his attempt to ingratiate himself by taking a short holiday in the Highlands. The UK Internal Market Bill is seen as a thinly disguised attempt to roll back devolution. UK ministers, especially Mr Johnson and Michael Gove, a Scot, treat the Scottish government and Britain’s quasi-federal institutions and conventions with contempt, even over Covid.

But Brexit has highlighted the perils of tearing an economy out of a customs union and single market it has long been part of, not to mention ties of kith and kin and shared wartime experiences. Ms Sturgeon has yet to prove to her people to take a chance on her; her strength is that she is shrewd and patient enough to accept that. She’s not going away.

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