Please campaign for SNP support for the People’s Vote
London4Europe Committee Member and former HM Treasury senior civil servant Michael Romberg looks at the absence of the SNP from the battlefield.
*** Updated 7 October 2018: Nicola Sturgeon said that in the event of a "blind Brexit" (when the terms of Brexit are not at all clear) MPs would wish to look at the other options and the SNP's MPs would vote for a Brexit referendum. That is progress. But it is still not the unequivocal call for a referendum in any event on the terms of Brexit with the option to Remain that we are looking for. So it is still worth your contacting the SNP to urge a clearer commitment. ***
*** Updated 8 October. Survation published an opinion poll on 4 October 2018. 49% in favour of a referendum on the terms of Brexit, 29% opposed. 55% say a referendum should include a Remain option, 33% should not. 36% said Brexit made them more likely to support independence, 37% no difference, 20% less likely.
Scotland voted Remain 62:38 – more even than London (60:40). The SNP supports Scottish membership of the EU. With a block of 35 disciplined MPs they would be a significant force in a deadlocked House of Commons. There is only one credible way to stop Brexit: a People’s Vote.
And yet the SNP are curiously absent from the campaign for the People’s Vote. Nicola Sturgeon said in May 2018 that the SNP would not be a block on a Brexit referendum; but her heart was clearly only in the independence referendum.
In September 2018 she repeated the point, adding that she would be "happy to have discussions" with those advocating one.
But she added: "I think for me to become an enthusiastic advocate of that I would need some assurance that Scotland won't simply find itself in the same position all over again where Scotland votes to stay but the rest of the UK votes to leave and Scotland ends up being taken against their will."
That is a pretty meaningless qualification. Scotland is not an independent sovereign state within some sort of treaty organization. The UK is a unitary state. EU membership is at the UK level. Scotland (population 5m) cannot expect a veto over what the UK (population 65m) decides. The only way to ensure that Scotland finds itself in a different position from 2016 is to win the referendum on the terms at the UK level. And if we lose Scotland would find itself no worse off than now.
As recently as 2 October 2018 in a newspaper article criticising Theresa May's Brexit Nicola Sturgeon argues for the whole of the UK to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union. She calls for the Article 50 deadline to be extended to allow more options to be considered. She does not call for Brexit to be stopped or a referendum to be held. (The article parallels her speech of the same day to the Europa Institute of Edinburgh University.)
For the SNP it’s all about Scottish Independence
Brexit is almost a side-show. Scottish politics revolve around independence, and everything – including Brexit - is interpreted through that lens.
Brexit is seen by the SNP leadership as a driver for independence:
- Most Scots wish to be in the EU.
- Brexit is yet another thing that the English have done to the Scots, fuelling a grievance narrative.
- Brexit is surely a “material change in circumstances” justifying holding another independence referendum so soon after 2014.
The SNP wishes to conserve voter energy for the second independence referendum rather than use it on a second Brexit referendum. No doubt Brenda from Bristol has a sister in Scotland.
But Brexit would also be a force against Scottish independence:
- In 2016, Scotland exported £45bn to the rest of the UK and £13bn to the rest of the EU. So if EU-Scotland faced a trade border with Brexit-UK it would be hit on most of its European exports.
- Scotland’s personal, social, tourism, travel links are also much bigger with the rest of the UK than with the rest of the EU. There would be a choice between a British Common Travel Area and Schengen.
- If we have learned nothing else from Brexit we have surely found out that the process of disentangling ourselves from the EU is complex. The Scots have barely addressed the practical issues of separating Scotland from the UK. It is not going to be as easy as the SNP said it in 2014 it would be. The SNP did recently set up the Sustainable Growth Commission which looked also at transitional arrangements. But that was a peripheral part of its remit and barely mentioned in practice.
- Independence from Brexit UK in order to join the EU would mean two big upheavals in structure in short order: Brexit and EU accession. That would be a lot of disruption to bear.
There is also a warning in Brexit. There has always been something perverse about Theresa May promoting Brexit while emphasising her commitment to “our precious union”. But it works the other way round too. If it is a poor show that so many English people are unwilling to countenance multiple identities (English/ British and European) then it is not somehow commendable that some Scots are unwilling to be Scottish and British, even if they are keen on being Scottish and European.
In practice, however, Brexit has not boosted support for independence (although support for it has been rising since 2014). That may be because a majority of Scots are Eurosceptic – though only a minority are in favour of leaving the EU. But Brexit has changed the composition of support for independence, which is now markedly higher amongst Europhiles. Electorally, the SNP’s pro-EU and pro-independence stance contributed to the Conservative revival in Scotland in 2017.
The way forward
Not all of the SNP wish to be in the EU. Some hard left and some hard independence factions in the party wish to be free from all entanglements.
But for those who do want EU membership and independence, there is an obvious route to a less painful process:
- Stop Brexit.
- Change EU rules so that a seceding territory may stay in the EU.
- Obtain independence with continuing EU membership.
The second step may be unrealistic. The Spanish government would be unlikely to agree to an EU treaty change that boosted Catalan calls for independence. But the treaty would have to talk about secession only with the consent of the member state concerned. So perhaps it would be a runner.
Whatever. It is hard to see that Brexit has turned out to be the driver for independence that Nicola Sturgeon may have wished it to be. So if the SNP wish Scotland to be in the EU they should campaign actively for a people’s vote and then for Remain in the referendum campaign.
How to get the SNP onside
If you are Scots, I suggest you contact the SNP directly or indirectly in whatever way is open to you and urge them to join the battle.
Now, in the run-up to the SNP Conference in Glasgow 7-9 October 2018, would be a good time; but don’t worry if you have missed it. The Meaningful Vote in Parliament is the critical point.
Finally, another parallel
Yes it's Theresa May explaining that the Scots could not fairly be expected to vote on independence until they know what Brexit means.
But does that not mean that it was unfair that the British people voted on Brexit in 2016 without the information we needed to make that decision?
Perhaps Theresa May supports a People’s Vote – a referendum on the terms of Brexit with the option to Remain - but has not yet realised it.
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