My Orcadian Column 24/5/18

For those of us familiar with life on the south side of Edinburgh, the Morningside Declaration conjures up notions of rules governing the appropriate scone topping to have with your afternoon tea.  Or perhaps the terms of a truce reached between students and pensioners required to share the same stairwell.

Instead, the Declaration appears to be a solemn vow from our former First Minister, Alex Salmond to return to frontline politics in the event that his successor, Nicola Sturgeon “fires the starting gun” for a second independence referendum.  On hearing the news last week, I suspect a tranquilizer gun was more in Nicola Sturgeon’s immediate thoughts.  Yet, by the weekend, there was the bold Nicola informing us that she plans to “restart the debate” about independence.  Did she ever stop?

This, of course, has nothing to do with the mood or needs of the nation.  Instead, it has everything to do with the prospect of having to face an SNP conference in Aberdeen next month where the bulk of the membership will demand to know when it can get on the march to freedom again. For those who signed up to the party after Scotland rejected independence in 2014, the motive was not a desire to sit on committees fine-tuning SNP policy on health, education or the economy.  It is independence: first, last and always.

Alex Salmond knows this and is desperate to fan the flames.  Nicola Sturgeon knows it too, but also recognizes the political risks attached to pursuing another independence referendum for which the public has no more appetite than it did last year, when her party was given a bloodied nose by the electorate in Scotland.

And this is not simply an assertion by someone with a political axe to grind.  Alex Bell, a former adviser to the First Minister, declared at the weekend that “the last thing the indy cause needs is another referendum any time soon. Asking the same question and expecting a different answer is the pop definition of stupid.” 

Mr Bell went on to acknowledge that “in the years since the last vote, not a single bone has been added to the skeletal case of 2014.” Fairly damning stuff, particularly from an ardent supporter of independence.

In her private moments, however, the First Minister almost certainly will share Mr Bell’s misgivings. Indeed, as she prepares to publish a report on economic options for an independent Scotland, Ms Sturgeon has accepted that, unlike last time, the consequences of independence cannot be “sugar-coated”.  That, though, remains to be seen.

Of course, it was all supposed to be so different.  For SNP strategists, the Brexit vote was meant to fire a new-found enthusiasm for abandoning the UK in favour of trying to retain our EU membership.  This has simply not happened, however, despite the shambolic mis-handling of those Brexit negotiations by the UK Tory government.  If anything, the near farcical process has reinforced the perils inherent in trying to disentangle a complex and deep-rooted union between nations.  Even one of a mere forty, as opposed to 300 years  standing.

All of which perhaps explains why other key former advisers to the First Minister, Noel Dolan and Kevin Pringle have been urging Ms Sturgeon to focus her energies on making the case for the British public to have the final say over any Brexit deal, rather than pursuing indyref2. The logic is compelling, but problematic for Ms Sturgeon, as the recent march of 35,000 Yes supporters through the streets of Glasgow illustrated. 

Interestingly, Nicola Sturgeon chose to keep her distance from that demonstration, opting instead for a ‘thumbs up’ emoji via social media. It is hard to see her predecessor being quite so ‘hands off’ had he still been First Minister.  If nothing else, as one commentator observed this week, Alex Salmond’s Morningside Declaration shows that “yesterday’s man hankers after tomorrow’s attention”.

It does though highlight the uncomfortable position in which Nicola Sturgeon finds herself.  Either she risks disappointing SNP activists or further alienating the majority of Scots.  What you might call a Morningside Conundrum.


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