We’ve now had quite a few of them where we can pick up traits and rules. Yip they can be divisive, but the most successful ones, and there are only two that fall into this category, can also re-enforce what Donald Dewar called “The settled will” of a nation. The second one being the one Dewar used that description on, the second Scottish devolution referendum 20 years ago this September. The first being the first EU referendum way back to just before I was born.
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With that in mind, you’d be thinking that those people with pro-Independence views would be looking to try and play the long game. Reach out and try and build a cross party consensus on the issue of independence whilst developing a loose narrative about how an Independent Scotland will work – a narrative flexible enough to have a left wing as well as a right wing spin. We have seen a stirring of the economic debate which we didn’t quite see last time with the cross platform debate between Kevin Hague and the fair tax campaigner Richard Murphy (More on that later I think…) but it feels like there is undue haste put on things.
That speed is entirely down to the First Minister’s preferred timetable for a second Independence Referendum. This timetable is designed entirely to ensure a smooth passage between the UK’s membership of the EU and (the SNP hope) a newly Independent Scotland’s membership of the EU. There are several big problems with this plan, though I’d suspect that the EU might not be the biggest problem (they have a reputation for breaking their own rules if it suits them – witness Greece, Italy, Portugal… etc’s entry to the Euro club at inception without meeting all of the, supposedly necessary, convergence criteria). No, Sturgeon’s biggest problem will be winning the referendum, especially if it is tied to the question of EU membership.
The problem which the SNP haven’t even broached is the estimated 36% of their voters which voted to leave the EU in last years EU Referendum. Those voters… indeed all of the million plus people who voted to leave the EU, have been talked down or airbrushed from the SNP’s “dragged out of the EU against our will” rhetoric. It smacks of bad politics that the SNP, and in particular Sturgeon, has risked alienating this constituency in the rush to a second referendum. Possible evidence for this has been that there has been no bounce for Independence in the polls in the aftermath of the EU vote. This alienation could also explain why we are split on the question of whether there should be a second referendum and if so, when? Alongside the other reasons why having an Independence Referendum in the autumn on 2018 would be an extraordinarily bad idea. Holding one predicated on an issue that would split your ‘core’ vote would be the big reason for not holding one at that point.
That’s not to say that those other reasons are not important. That Sturgeon and the SNP seem to be prospering in spite of the lack of people who are outraged at “Scotland being dragged out of the EU… against it’s will” or that it looks highly likely that we will see Yes Scotland 2 as the campaign weapon of choice are important in their own right. It’s just that the decision to go on an issue that splits Independence voters along similar lines to the way Scotland itself split last June does look like suicidal political tactics. Coupled with the other reasons, you would pretty much write off any chance of successful referendum win this side of the UK’s divorce from the EU being finalised. Then again, I did say that for the SNP to successfully argue that the EU referendum was a material change then they did need a pro-EU vote in Scotland of at least 65%. At 62% (or if you’re Stephen Gethins, two thirds of Scottish voters), that vote is too small a foundation and has so far proven to be a flimsy pretext for a referendum.
If you were Theresa May and you really wanted to secure the Union for a generation, ideally you would ‘engineer’ a referendum as quickly as possible. Give Sturgeon what she wants, a referendum in the Autumn of 2018. At that point the Independence Campaign will still be slightly unorganised, the arguments rushed, and perhaps just slightly off guard. The big problem with that scenario is the conservative, cautious nature of May. Like Brown, when he became nervous over Wendy Alexander’s bravado over the possibility of a referendum 10 years ago, May will recoil over a snap referendum which will eventually come in conditions much more favourable to Sturgeon.
Instead of rushing into a second referendum, the SNP need to come up with a plan different to the one which lost in 2014. They need to work on uniting the country behind a vision of a better Scotland rather than the ‘over enthusiastic’ argumentative style which Yes fundamentalists are very guilty of. That means continuing with the long game, which means consistent rebuttals that an Independent Scotland would be too wee & poor. It needs to be a long game firstly because as I earlier point out a quick referendum will lead to defeat and secondly because I think there will be better examples of ‘material change’, or certainly examples that will have a bigger impact on the Scottish electorate than the EU referendum. If the UK’s divorce from the EU turns sour, if May’s proposed Grand Repeal Act proves not to represent Scottish interests or if May follows through and has a manifesto pledge to scrap the ECHR from English/Scots law. These are the known examples that could go down badly with a Scottish electorate and unite them behind the idea of Independence, but not if the SNP persist in standing up for Scotland by not talking to the 1 million Eurosceptic voters or the 2 million pro-UK voters.
When I wrote in 2012 that Scotland would vote to remain within the UK, it was because the flaws within the Independence argument were becoming self evident. Arguably, had Osborne not made his notorious ‘sermon on the pound’ speech then Better Together could arguably have had a bigger lead – as it was that speech which precipitated the fall in the pro-UK’s poll ratings. Even before this referendum has started, the same issues remain alongside other issues, possibly related to Sturgeon’s impulsiveness. She may not see it that way, but May’s continued stonewalling of Sturgeon’s demands for a second referendum hands Sturgeon and the SNP an advantage. Only if they recognise it and use the time to sort out the issues with their arguments.