The SNP may face disaster after Sturgeon. But the flame of independence still burns | Neal Ascherson

‘Ane lecherous and bluidy Tyrant, slain be his nobillis in the viij yeare of his reign.” So the old chronicles record about quite a few Scottish kings. Succession to power has not often been a smooth business in Scotland and the competition to succeed Nicola Sturgeon, though bloodless, is happening in a landscape pitted with uncertainties.

Kate Forbes resembles Sturgeon in her bold self-certainty, but not in her distinctly conservative politics – well to the right of Sturgeonite social democracy. Humza Yousaf, the experienced “continuity candidate”, is a likable man rather unfairly mocked as a serial incompetent (though operation waiting times, on his watch as health secretary, are awful – far worse than England’s). Ash Regan, lagging behind the other two, enjoys her freedom to criticise the SNP and the wider independence movement for lack of energy. If she or Forbes were to win and become first minister, the governing coalition with the Greens would almost certainly collapse. That would leave the SNP as far the largest party in the Scottish parliament, but just short of an absolute majority.

Sturgeon’s abrupt abdication has hit both her reputation and the independence movement. How hard a hit will become clear in the next few weeks. Historically, Scottish party politics have swung suddenly from one near-monopoly to another: the Liberals ruled in the 19th century, then unionist Tories, then the near-total Labour control of national and local politics from the 1960s to 2007, then the obliterating tide of SNP victories at every level until today. So it’s possible that the tide is turning again and that the next general and Holyrood elections will see another of those mass voter migrations away from the SNP. Possible – but unlikely. After all, migration to where? If there is a sickness in Scottish democracy, it is the shocking weakness of the unionist opposition parties: rabid, incoherent and declining Tories; a Scottish Labour party still hobbled by its “branch office” subordination to London; a small Lib-Dem rump whose leaders are scarcely known to the public.

This leaves the SNP still presenting as the “party of Scotland”, standing up for the nation with 100,000 members and no strings leading south of the border. But the SNP has been the government in Edinburgh for 15 years – far too long for any party to stay in office without decay. The Scottish media, heavily Unionist in its coverage, spreads the opinion that the SNP has failed grotesquely in almost every department: education (“the attainment gap”), health, transport, local empowerment as opposed to nervous centralising of everything. Much of this is unfair. Important Scottish reforms – the Child Poverty Act and child payments, the “baby box” for newborns, better pay for nurses, the maintenance of free university tuition and free personal care at home – are envied elsewhere in the UK. The worst failures are to do with procurement and infrastructure: the scandal of worn-out or unbuilt ferries, the missed chances for Scottish business to share in renewable energy opportunities and, above all, the steady draining abroad of Scottish ownership or control of both industry and finance.

As for independence, the very name of the party’s soul, the SNP’s sheer popularity has landed it in a classic trap. Alex Salmond and Sturgeon gambled that governing a devolved Scotland well would persuade doubters that the SNP could lead the nation into a happy and prosperous independence. But that logic can backfire. Supporters may relax, saying: “Sure, the Nats are obviously the only party for us. But they are running things reasonably well, so there’s no desperate need to risk the plunge into full independence.” In Quebec, the voters kept electing the Parti Québécois to govern the province. But when it came to referendums, they couldn’t quite bring themselves to give independence a majority. Something like that happened in Scotland too, in 2014. The “yes” side lost the independence referendum by 10%, but the SNP went on accumulating enormous election victories. Now, as Sturgeon departs with independence no nearer, one might expect a rougher, more impatient force – a non-violent Sinn Féin – to burst up through the law-abiding SNP. That hasn’t yet happened. Salmond’s tiny Alba party, arguing radically, hasn’t won significant support. But watch that space.

There are two notions of how Scottish independence can be reached. One relies on agency: it won’t happen unless we struggle. The other is geological. Scotland and the rest of the UK have been slowly diverging, politically and culturally, since the mid-20th century and sooner or later Scottish statehood will be irresistible. I think Sturgeon was a bit of a geologist. She wanted time for this uncoupling to develop, dreading a “premature” second referendum that would defeat her cause and delay independence for a generation. But she wasn’t allowed time. Instead, she found herself in effect seeking permission for another referendum from the supreme court, knowing that her case stood almost no chance against the Westminster doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.

The independence cause is not dead, as some Unionists proclaim. It may sag for a time, perhaps heavily. But the 2014 referendum campaign entrenched “indy” as a solid, plausible alternative for Scotland’s future. And the union no longer works as a partnership. It belonged to a Great British unitary state. But from 1999, as soon as devolution introduced democracy into the union’s structure, its basic lopsidedness emerged. The fact that one “partner”, England, held 85% of the total UK population suddenly started to matter. Westminster is now principally an assembly dealing with English affairs; Whitehall has adjusted its priorities. There was nothing especially “English nationalist” behind this: it’s a recognition of realities. But a union of unequals, based now on law rather than consent, is bound to disintegrate. Its members could perhaps come to rest in a “confederation of independent states”.

In the end, independence is there for the asking. If, say, 65% of Scottish voters keep demanding for six months to leave the UK, no British government will stop them. Critical for the future are the cautious thousands outside the SNP who are moved by the idea of Scotland as “a normal wee nation” but not yet convinced of its practicality. Meanwhile, the sheer blundering nastiness of current London governments continues to generate disgust. As a Glasgow woman told a journalist the other day: “It just makes you want to take Scotland and go!”

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer

The Guardian