In 2007, Sturgeon became deputy to the gregarious Alex Salmond, the SNP first minister who marched Scotland toward its first, ultimately unsuccessful, independence referendum in 2014.** The referendum failed, in part, because the pro-U.K., “Better Together” side used EU membership as an economic carrot: Without Britain’s attachment to Europe, they insisted Scotland would find it difficult to trade with European countries, a claim that’s still up for debate on both sides. A Scottish bid for EU membership could take years, with no guarantee of success.
As for Sturgeon, after the independence referendum, Salmond resigned, and she ascended to both the party leadership and the position of first minister. In the 2015 U.K. general election, the SNP won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in parliament. At Holyrood, a lack of cohesion and momentum among the Scottish Conservative and Labour parties has left the SNP essentially opposition-less.***
Then, in June 2016, the economic stability promised by Better Together vanished when Britain voted to leave the EU. Devine described the current state of British uncertainty as a tipping point. “I sense the mood in Scotland is beginning to change in a way that might make the independence agenda unassailable,” he said. Now, the challenge for Sturgeon becomes adjusting to the strange new reality where world-shifting events may have played to the SNP’s favor.
Like most nationalist movements, the SNP is fueled by its founding mythology—the pursuit of freedom. Independence, should it come, would sap the SNP of at least some of its existential purpose. The party’s origins are rooted in a spirit of defiant anti-Englishness, dating back to the days of Margaret Thatcher. As opposition leader, Thatcher attempted to thwart Scottish devolution when it first came up for debate in 1979 by insisting that all British voters had a say over Scotland’s governance. Two months later, Thatcher was elected prime minister. Her government’s austerity measures and lack of intervention in the economy contributed heavily to the collapse of state-sponsored and heavy industry, leading to economic disarray in Scotland. A leveling of tax rates between rich and poor turned Scotland’s working class against her.
Meanwhile, Scottish conservatives gradually absorbed some of Thatcher’s “anti-Scottish-ness,” slowly diminishing their party’s power in Scotland in the 1980s. There is still debate at Holyrood today over whether the Scottish Tories have been able to crawl out from under Thatcher’s shadow. (Devine sarcastically deemed Thatcher the “Mother of Scottish Nationalism.”)
But, he adds, if Thatcher was the mother of Scottish nationalism, then May is the headmistress. Both unintentionally fostered Scottish nationalism even among those that lean towards the Union. May, who has accused the SNP of exhibiting extreme “tunnel vision,” seems to have underestimated the depth of Scottish distrust for Westminster. “What’s happened, because of the way London has handled the position so abysmally, is a steady unleashing of the economic issue and a movement towards a political issue,” Devine said of the push for independence. The economic fears that trumped Scottish identity in 2014 have been pushed aside in a messy culture war between Scottish nationalists and British unionists. “There’s the sense that, ‘If we don’t do something, we’re going to be ruined by this right-wing clique,’” he added.