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DEREK HEALEY: Is Scotland really ‘more ready than ever’ for independence?

Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon is now our longest-serving first minister – but is she any closer to achieving her ultimate goal?

The SNP leader says Scotland is “more ready than ever” to become an independent country after the “nation building” undertaken by her government.

But what kind of nation is Ms Sturgeon attempting to build?

Her claim of a country ready to take the plunge appears staggeringly ill-timed in the week service cuts to a freshly nationalised ScotRail threatened to paralyse our railways.

It comes days after a target date to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap in schools – once described as the first minister’s “defining mission” – was scrapped.

Some 2,743 days after taking office, the number of Scots dying from drugs has soared inexorably and is now the highest in Europe.

The SNP leader admits she took her “eye off the ball” on that one.

Political rivals point to a health service in crisis, rising child poverty and “scandalous incompetence” over the ferries fiasco as further examples of mismanagement.

Has the needle moved on independence?

Despite the challenges, Nicola Sturgeon remains a remarkably popular politician and just this month stormed to victory again in the local council elections.

But as she surpasses Alex Salmond’s tenure in Bute House, some will question if such a milestone could become a millstone.

Political rivals and supporters alike will wonder what the first minister has achieved with all that time and popularity.

Has she really moved the needle any further towards independence?

Yes campaign supporters in George Square, Glasgow, as ballet papers for the Scottish independence referendum are counted through the night.

Support for leaving the rest of the UK has broadly remained at around the same level since 2014, with Brexit and Boris Johnson giving the Yes camp a slight boost.

Ms Sturgeon has pledged to hold a referendum before the end of 2023 but few, including those within her own party, really believe that will happen.

It appears certain that Westminster will withhold consent, so any new referendum will, even in the best case scenario, likely be held up by a protracted dispute.

Questions left unanswered

Perhaps that is a blessing in disguise because regardless of whether Scotland is ready for independence, the SNP does not appear to be a party ready for a referendum.

Seven-and-a-half years on from the first vote and fewer than 18 months from the next, according to Nicola Sturgeon’s stated timetable, little serious headway has been made in answering what currency an independent Scotland would use.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Boris Johnson’s attempts to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol show there is not yet a neat solution for a newly independent nation seeking to become an EU member while maintaining open borders with the rest of the UK.

Meanwhile, the SNP’s own policy chief admits his party must provide “clarity and certainty” to voters over pensions after conflicting messages from senior figures.

Defining a legacy as first minister

The end goal of every SNP leader must surely be to secure independence.

It is now five years since Ms Sturgeon first asked a prime minister to transfer the powers to Holyrood to organise a referendum.

The latest offering to placate restless party members is a new “prospectus” setting out the opportunities and challenges of leaving the UK behind.

But the SNP leader has still not provided a firm date for any new vote or brought forward a referendum bill to Holyrood.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arriving for First Minster’s Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. Picture by PA.

Political leaders with years under their belt often ponder their legacy.

For our record-breaking first minister, whose time at the top has been characterised with caution and a lack of flagship civic projects, ‘Sturgeonsim’ may prove hard to define.

With remarkable approval ratings still pouring in but no tangible route to independence yet in sight, supporters will hope her legacy amounts to more than wasted opportunity.

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