Time for the SNP to Get on the Front Foot on Brexit

Kirsty Hughes | 24 September 2018

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Is the Scottish government starting to toughen up its Brexit policy? Perhaps. But it doesn’t so far look like a more coherent strategy putting the government and the SNP on the front foot ahead of the other parties on Brexit. Yet as Labour fudge their position on a people’s vote and Tory infighting and incoherence deepens, the timing is surely good for the Scottish government and SNP politicians to stand up against the growing political chaos around Brexit.

In August, a YouGov poll for Scotland suggested Scottish voters now support ‘remain’ by 66% to 34% – with SNP voters at 83% ‘remain’ ahead of Labour voters at 74% ‘remain’ and Conservative voters on only 29% ‘remain’. While 61% of Scottish voters back holding another EU vote (excluding ‘don’t knows’), 79% of SNP voters would support this. This is surely a good moment for any anti-Brexit Scottish politician or political party to up its game – and one where the Scottish government would be in line both with majority opinion in Scotland and among its own voters.

In the last week or so, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that if there isn’t a ‘soft’ Brexit, staying in both the EU’s customs union and single market, there should be no Brexit. This is quite a bit tougher than the more usual SNP formulation of preferring that Brexit wasn’t happening. She, and Brexit secretary Mike Russell, have also insisted that it isn’t the SNP blocking a people’s vote on Brexit. But, at the same time, Sturgeon has insisted she won’t be an ‘enthusiastic advocate’ of another EU vote without a recognition that Scotland should have another independence referendum if there were then a second ‘leave’ vote.

The First Minister also called in the last week for Article 50 to be extended if the UK faces either a ‘no deal’ Brexit or a ‘blind Brexit’ with very little detail about the future UK-EU relationship. And Mike Russell insisted once again that any special deal for Northern Ireland, keeping it effectively in the single market and customs union, should be available for Scotland too.

That’s quite a few Brexit statements in a short period of time. But is the Scottish government moving, finally, to put more emphasis on stopping Brexit rather than its principal focus remaining, as it has been in the last 18 months, on a ‘soft’ Brexit? There’s a lack of clarity and some inconsistencies here.

If Theresa May somehow manages to pull a deal with the EU out of the bag, it is likely to include an Irish backstop, along with the rest of the withdrawal agreement (including on the divorce bill and rights of EU citizens), and a fairly vague political declaration on the future relationship. But more detail, as demanded by Nicola Sturgeon, won’t necessarily make Brexit more palatable. If May moves towards a Canada-style trade deal as the goal, that will be hugely damaging economically to the whole UK. Delaying Article 50 to negotiate a more detailed exposition of a ‘Canada dry’ or ‘Canada plus’ deal won’t help Scotland.

And given that May is highly unlikely to bring back a ‘soft Brexit deal, then why argue for delay in the Article 50 talks rather than focusing on the newly expressed SNP view that Brexit should be stopped if it’s not ‘soft’? Nor is the EU anyway likely to agree to any delay (which they can only do unanimously) unless there is a major political shift in the UK – a general election or a new EU referendum. There would be little point in giving the Conservative government more time to go round in circles failing to find a realistic Brexit strategy that commands support across the party.

But that then raises the question of what the SNP strategy is for the crucial weeks ahead. If Theresa May brings a deal back to Westminster, will the SNP vote against it in all circumstances (assuming it’s not a ‘soft’ Brexit)? It would appear so, but imagine a situation where there is an Irish backstop, the EU27 have signed up to the deal and want the UK to leave on that basis not in the chaos of a ‘no deal’ exit, there will be a lot of pressure not to bring the deal down (not least from the Irish government). Yet surely both the SNP and Labour could not vote (or abstain) to rescue and support a Theresa May deal?

Current SNP policy statements point in different directions. Is the priority to stop Brexit if it’s not ‘soft’ – in which case how? Or is the priority to demand the same deal as Northern Ireland for Scotland – and what then when the answer is no? Or is the priority to demand an extension to Article 50? But if May’s deal does pass at Westminster, there won’t be any reason to extend it and Brexit will happen. And if the deal doesn’t pass, or there is no deal, then the choice will surely be between a ‘no confidence’ vote and a general election and/or a people’s vote – and then to ask for an extension of Article 50. So which would the SNP prefer – or would they vote for both i.e. a ‘no confidence’ vote to trigger an election, and for a people’s vote (depending on the order of these votes and which, if any, can get a majority at Westminster).

Labour has now fudged its policy on a people’s vote, reflecting its leadership’s (but not its members’) reluctance both to back a second EU vote and to have ‘remain’ as an option in any such vote. This raises the possibility of a people’s vote amendment at Westminster where Labour MPs might not vote for one that suggests ‘remain’ should be on the ballot paper, while SNP and Lib Dems would presumably not vote for an amendment that didn’t include that option. But does ‘not blocking’ a people’s vote, mean the SNP will vote for it (not abstain) even if there is no acceptance of the case for a second independence referendum in the case of a ‘leave’ vote – that’s still unclear for now.

So, in the turmoil that currently passes for UK politics, it’s possible that a ‘no confidence’ vote in May – if her deal is rejected or there is no deal – might not pass and a vote for another EU referendum might not pass. The UK at that point would be hurtling into a chaotic ‘no deal’ tumbling out of the EU. It’s hard to see how the situation would be resolved but a general election surely would look quite likely as the turmoil intensified.

The SNP could turn their mixture of Brexit policies into a strategy that would put them much more on the front foot. They could denounce the damaging, growing chaos of the Brexit talks, insist it is time to stop Brexit and argue that Brexit should be stopped through a new EU referendum. It would be strong, clear and coherent. In doing this, they could clearly state they are speaking for the majority views of Scottish voters. And they could usefully take these arguments to EU27 capitals too.

The Scottish government can certainly then argue too that, if another EU vote returned a ‘leave’ vote, they would demand another independence referendum. But refusing to ‘enthusiastically advocate’ a people’s vote without other groups or parties acknowledging Scotland should have another independence vote puts the Scottish government onto the back foot. Instead of demanding a new vote, and calling out Labour’s fudge, they’re on the sidelines waiting for the unlikely outcome of the Lib Dems or others agreeing with a second independence vote. Instead of demanding a halt to Brexit now as their top demand, they’re still emphasising a ‘soft’ Brexit or talking of extending Article 50 or settling for a deal like Northern Ireland or all of these at once (which doesn’t add up).

There is a big vacuum in the unfolding Brexit debate that for a mixture of reasons the Lib Dems are failing to fill. The Scottish government stepping up with a strong coherent set of arguments would show that Scotland is not just standing by as the Brexit process implodes. On the front foot or the back foot – the choice is clear, and time is running out.

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Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.