Brexit Roundup: The SNP and a Second Independence Referendum

Iain Macwhirter | 16 April 2018

© 2017 SCER

Amid the snows of March, a frisson of excitement gripped the independence movement, and the Scottish press, when it was revealed that the Scottish National Party had registered a new website, ‘organise.scot’. Opposition politicians accused the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, of sneakily renewing her plans for an early repeat referendum on Scottish independence. But as so often with ‘indyref2’, as many SNP supporters still call it, this referendum signal turned out to be a false one. In fact, the website had been registered last year, not long after Sturgeon called off the last referendum.

Independence supporters get annoyed when you say that the First Minister ‘called off’ the independence ballot, and insist that she only ‘reset’ the timetable. But this is largely semantics. The referendum, prematurely announced in March 2017, was postponed in June following the general election. Ms Sturgeon said she would return to parliament in the autumn of 2018 to give a new timetable for independence. Some optimistic Scottish nationalists believe she might still call a referendum then and there, on the grounds that she’d always said that indyref2 had to come before the UK left the EU in March 2019.

The SNP leader had indeed originally argued that it was necessary for the people of Scotland to be offered the ‘democratic option’ to revisit their 2014 decision to remain in the UK before Scotland was dragged out of Europe. After all, she argued, a key plank of the unionist Better Together campaign in 2014 had been the claim that only by staying in the UK could Scotland be sure of remaining in the European Union. Now Scots were being taken out of the EU against their will, since they had voted by 62% – 38% to remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum. There had, said the FM, been a ‘material change in circumstances’ that rendered the 2014 independence result unsafe. This was an impeccable argument. Unfortunately, it didn’t appear that Scottish voters shared it.

Conflicting views within the SNP on referendum timing

The loss of a third of the SNP’s MPs in the June 2017 snap election convinced Nicola Sturgeon that Brexit had not, after all, provoked a thirst for an early independence referendum. Scottish voters had had two momentous constitutional upheavals in little over two years and were, to use a good Scots word, ‘scunnered’ by referendums. One year on from the ‘reset’, there is little evidence that the First Minister has changed her mind and is about to call an early ballot, and anyway there is strong opposition to the idea among her own MPs.

In a recent article in iScot magazine, the senior SNP MP for Perth, Pete Wishart, appealed to the SNP leader to stay her hand. His majority collapsed from 10,000 to 21 in the 2017 general election and he is convinced from his own canvassing that it was the threat of another referendum that nearly lost him his seat. He concedes that support for independence has not collapsed since 2014, but says that this cannot be translated into demand for another referendum now. He warns against following the example of Quebec, where two lost referendums killed the independence movement stone dead in the 1990s. ‘Holding a second referendum only to lose it because the people weren’t ready’, he wrote, ‘would be the worst possible national tragedy.’

Not everyone in the independence movement agrees with Wishart, and he has been taken to task on social media for defeatism. What might be called the Mandate Tendency in the SNP insist that Ms Sturgeon is under a moral and political obligation to call a referendum sooner rather than later. She won a historic vote in the Scottish parliament last March for a referendum and that mandate is time-limited. The SNP then campaigned in the 2017 general election for a ‘triple lock’ mandate, and secured that, despite losses, by winning more seats than all the unionist parties combined. The influential SNP blogger James Kelly says Sturgeon should be holding another referendum ‘as a matter of honour in politics’.

Kelly disputes Pete Wishart’s canvas findings and insists that victory is only a handful of percentage points away. Yet delay, he believes, could be fatal. All governments lose popularity, and the SNP government has been in power now for nearly 11 years. Optimum conditions may never arise, and the mandate may evaporate in 2021. The SNP cannot assume that it will be in a position to win another Section 30 vote after the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021.

Focus on protecting devolution over independence

This is an immensely difficult question for the First Minister to resolve. Anecdotally, there certainly seems very little demand for another independence vote simply as a result of Scotland being taken out of the EU. In March, an Ipsos Mori poll suggested that only 22% of Scots thought that there should be a second referendum because of Brexit. A Panelbase poll for Scotland on Sunday indicated something similar. However, these polls are difficult to interpret. They also found support for independence remaining remarkably stable. Ipsos recorded that 46% of those intending to vote would support Yes and that 41% or Scots want another independence referendum at some stage. This is surprisingly high, given that independence has slipped far down the day-to-day political agenda in Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon has been spending most of the year campaigning, not for independence, but for devolution. Her considerable energies have been going into opposing the ‘Westminster power grab’ of responsibilities repatriated from Brussels under the EU Withdrawal bill, currently grinding its way through the UK parliament. Some nationalists are uncomfortable with this. The SNP traditionally regarded devolution as, at best, a poor second to independence, and at worse as a unionist-inspired diversion from it.

She could just have said: ‘told you so: power devolved is power retained – the only way to entrench the powers of the Scottish parliament is through independence’. Instead she joined with Labour’s Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, to argue for an amendment to Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal bill such that Scotland would retain a veto over powers repatriated from Brussels to Westminster, such as on agriculture, fisheries and the environment.

This constitutional issue is important but has little voter appeal. Few Scots fully understand the significance of the 1998 Scotland Act, and its founding principle that responsibilities not specifically reserved to Westminster should automatically become powers of Holyrood. The First Minister is right that the EU Withdrawal bill does undermine the devolution settlement by insisting that 24 responsibilities go first to Westminster. But this means that, for the time being, the Scottish National Party has largely stopped focusing on the case for independence. At any rate, if Nicola Sturgeon is minded to announce a referendum in the autumn, this hardly seems the ground on which to prepare for it.

Sturgeon’s cautious approach to a second referendum

It seems inconceivable, anyway, that another referendum could be staged before 2019, not least because it would require a Section 30 order from Westminster and Theresa May has already said she won’t agree to one. The constitution is a reserved power. Holding one without Westminster consent would be futile, because the unionist side would boycott it, and undermine its legitimacy – as happened in the illegal Catalan referendum last October. Nicola Sturgeon does not hold with civil disobedience or extra-legal action. She refrained from intervening in the extradition to Spain of the former Catalan education minister, Clara Ponsatí, to the dismay of some SNP supporters.

So we can rule out any referendum before Britain leaves the EU, even if it were possible to organise one in time. This leaves the option of announcing a referendum before 2021. But I suspect the First Minister will avoid making any firm promises in September. She is under pressure from some in the SNP to consider another referendum entirely: a second UK-wide referendum on the EU – the ‘exit from Brexit’, as the Liberal Democrats call it. She has not explicitly endorsed this second EU referendum, not least because her own party is divided over it. A number of the newer, more left-wing SNP members favour the Norway option of joining the European Economic Area rather than returning to the EU. Supporters of the pro-independence Rise group, like the columnist Carolyn Leckie, have even proposed a three-question referendum containing the EU, EEA and Brexit.

It seems likely the First Minster will reject all of these options for fear of creating yet more confusion amongst Scottish voters. She hasn’t entirely given up on the possibility that Scotland might be able to remain in some form of regulatory alignment with Europe, as envisaged by her 2016 white paper Scotland’s Place in Europe. After all, the UK government has apparently agreed to Northern Ireland remaining in regulatory alignment with the customs union and single market. Could Scotland not therefore demand parity? The problem for everyone in Scottish politics – and indeed in UK politics – is that Brexit has become so fluid and uncertain that no one is quite clear yet what it is going to mean in practice. It is hard to formulate a coherent proposal for leaving the UK when it is not clear yet just how the UK is to leave the EU.

And assuming that the UK does leave the EU as arranged next year, that alters the independence equation fundamentally. It was one thing leaving the UK when it was assumed to be remaining part of the EU. It is quite another proposing that Scotland should leave the UK when it is out of the European Union. In such an event, the hard border question moves from Ireland to Scotland. If England is out of the European Union, it seems inevitable that there would have to be a hard border at Carlisle, if and when Scotland leaves the UK and rejoins the European Union. In the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign, there was no border issue because both Scotland and England were assumed to be remaining in the customs union and single market.

My suspicion is that this ultra-cautious First Minister will play a dead bat. She’ll say there can be no decision on a Scottish independence referendum until the fog of Brexit clears and voters know where they stand. That means no independence referendum before 2021, because Brexit will still be lost in the mist of the transition period. Only if there is a sudden and dramatic shift in Scottish opinion in favour of holding an early referendum will that change. It may even be some years after 2021 before Scots are ready to revisit the Scottish question. Only then will the full reality dawn that they have lost their citizenship of the EU, are out of the single market and that Scotland has become a marginal region of a new Brexit Britain.

Iain MacwhirterIain Macwhirter | Twitter

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Iain Macwhirter is a writer, broadcaster and columnist for the Herald and Sunday Herald. He is the author of a number of books on Scottish politics and was Rector of the University of Edinburgh from 2009-2012.