In UK terms, Derek Mackay is not a high-profile politician. But he has been a very important one in Scotland in the last decade, and a star within the governing SNP. His resignation as Scottish finance secretary and his suspension from the party after sending hundreds of texts to a 16-year-old male is thus a major personal and political event. It comes at what was already a significant time for Nicola Sturgeon’s government, with renewed support for independence in the face of Boris Johnson’s refusal to sanction a second referendum, and amid mounting domestic criticism of the SNP’s record. With the former leader Alex Salmond soon to face trial for alleged sexual offences, the Mackay scandal was the last thing that Ms Sturgeon wanted. Now it is suddenly a key part of a major set of tests for the first minister, her judgment, her party and her government.
The pivotal question is whether and how far these other issues disrupt or override the anger of Scottish voters that EU withdrawal is being imposed by a Conservative party whose governing majority is drawn from elsewhere. The first minister sees this as an injustice for which the best remedy is independence – but she sees that as the remedy to everything, which diminishes the potency of the argument.
Brexit gives nationalists a resonant new grievance. It does not improve the economic case for independence or make it easier to achieve. But the pro-independence side’s defeat in the 2014 referendum is a bigger problem for Ms Sturgeon. Mr Johnson never tires of pointing out that the SNP recognised the once-per-generation status of that ballot. Mr Johnson is a terrible messenger for unionism – a caricature of English Tory arrogance – but he is not wrong to remind nationalists that Scotland recently chose to stay in the UK. Many Scottish voters think a first minister’s energies might more usefully be spent governing than demanding a referendum rematch.
Ms Sturgeon’s riposte is that Brexit has changed facts and minds, so the rematch is democratically imperative. Some opinion polls indicate a slender pro-independence majority, with a pivotal shift in that direction caused by a migration of EU remainers who voted no in 2014. Ms Sturgeon wants to ride that mood to victory in next year’s Scottish parliament elections. Such a result would, she believes, signal enough backing for a second referendum that Mr Johnson would be obliged to grant one. More radical nationalists believe Westminster’s permission is not required, but legally it is. The first minister is wise to stick to the letter of the law. An aggressive snatch for independence would suffocate Scotland’s prospects of one day rejoining the EU.
The long game has mostly suited the SNP, but it has limits. When the Holyrood poll comes around, the party will have been governing for 14 years and gaps in its record cannot be ignored. Scottish schoolchildren underperform in literacy and numeracy tests relative to their English peers. Scottish policing is bogged down in a crisis so acute that the chair of the watchdog authority washed her hands of it in December. Tory austerity is the SNP’s default excuse for poor services but public spending is around 20% higher per capita than in England. Ms Sturgeon cannot shrug off the weight of incumbency indefinitely. The Mackay scandal makes that attempt much more difficult than it was already.
Whatever difficulties the SNP faces, it is blessed with weak and incompetent enemies. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour blurred its position on a second referendum and has yet to regain focus. Mr Johnson’s lines are crisp, but his crass manner boosts the separatist cause. If the case for preserving a United Kingdom is monopolised by a Tory party pumped up on Brexit, the argument will fall flat. That case should stand above party loyalties. It should escape the arena of competing nationalisms – English and Scottish – and appeal to a wider sense of shared history and collective endeavour. Sadly, leaders who are gifted at expressing that vision are in short supply. The arguments are not well rehearsed. Supporters of the EU discovered the equivalent weakness of their position too late. Believers in a United Kingdom must not make the same mistake.