Alex Massie

Nicola Sturgeon’s Brexit bounce

Nicola Sturgeon's Brexit bounce
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There was a fairytale quality to Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to the SNP conference this afternoon. On the one hand, she demanded a second referendum on independence next year; on the other, almost no-one in Scottish politics really believes there will be a referendum next year.

In tandem with this rallying call for national liberation – an emancipation made ever more urgent by the looming Brexit fiasco – there ran another line of argument: conference delegates, like the wider nationalist movement, must be careful and canny and patient. Which is another way of saying that, whatever the headlines suggest, it’s probably not happening. At least not yet.

For the last few days, senior SNP figures have stressed time and time again that any referendum must be held on an unimpeachably legal basis. There will be no wildcat plebiscite, no unilateral declaration of independence. No messing about with Catalan-style nonsense. And, frankly, quite right too. Unlike some of her colleagues and plenty of her supporters, Nicola Sturgeon is an adult and, by the standards of these things, a realist.

If, one way or another, a referendum could be held next year she would be happy with that. But she has a Plan B too. Ratcheting up demands for a second referendum knowing full well that they will – as they must – be denied by the UK government is a means by which the troops can be sent into battle at the 2021 Holyrood election brimful of righteous indignation. Scotland, big enough and rich enough and smart enough to be independent, will not be pushed around by a Westminster establishment hellbent on denying the Scottish people the right to choose their own future. Nobody puts Scotland in the corner.

That poses a challenge for Unionism: how do you take the heat out of an argument that, once more, is coming to the boil? And how do you do so while also riling up your own supporters, those Scots whose Britishness remains important to them and upon whose votes you depend if the SNP (and the Greens) are to be thwarted in 2021? A good question, to which the best answer – ignoring it – may not be available forever.

“And when I do [demand a referendum], the question should not be to the SNP – what will we do if Westminster refuses? The question should be demanded of the Westminster parties – what gives you any right to deny people in Scotland our ability to choose our own future?”

To which the answer is that it is Nicola Sturgeon who has repeatedly cautioned that it would be a mistake to hold a referendum until such time as the shape and meaning of Brexit is clear. That shape, that meaning, is as yet unknown. This being so, by the first minister’s own argument, it would be irresponsible to have a referendum until such time as the future relationship between the UK and the EU has been ascertained.

Only then could the people of Scotland be given the opportunity to make an informed choice. Brexit may be changing hearts and minds but it has not done so conclusively. The nationalists are at last enjoying their long-awaited Brexit bounce – a bounce foreseen by many of us who warned that Brexit could very easily lead to the destruction of the United Kingdom – but it is a bounce that has made the future of this country a 50-50 proposition.

And, as I have suggested before, if the experience of 2016 teaches us anything, it is surely that referendums on major constitutional matters are best used to confirm existing, settled, sentiments and not to determine, on a desperately narrow winner-takes-all basis, what those sentiments happen to be.

This, indeed, is not just my view; it used to be Nicola Sturgeon’s view too. Once upon a time, in the happy days before Brexit, she conceded that a second referendum could only be reckoned reasonable if support for independence had been running at something like 60 per cent for a prolonged period of time.

Brexit, you may object, changes everything and in many ways it does. It is a self-inflicted folly of a kind that may yet destroy the country it was supposed to liberate. It does create the “material change in circumstance” that can justify a fresh push for another referendum. But it bears repeating that Sturgeon’s pre-Brexit view had much to be said for it and so, indeed, does her post-Brexit view that it would be rash to push for independence before we know what Brexit will require of us.

One thing it will most probably require, assuming a putatively independent Scotland applies – and is accepted – for EU membership, is a hard frontier on the Tweed and Solway.

The economic gains of EU membership would be real and substantial; they would also be offset by the cost of raising transaction costs with Scotland’s largest market. Something in the order of 60 per cent of Scottish trade flows south to England. So if, as Nicola Sturgeon keeps telling us, leaving a trading union with your largest market is an act of folly and self-harm when it is the UK departing the EU so, by her own logic, it must be economic folly for Scotland to quit the United Kingdom on these likely terms.

Now there is nothing disreputable about that. It is a perfectly respectable position. Sovereignty can be more important than the dry accountancy of trade flows. But it is best to be honest about these things and best, too, to allow that the early days of the new liberated nation would be difficult. A new currency will be required and so too urgent moves to reduce a fiscal deficit that, in recent years, has bounced between eight and 12 per cent of GDP.

All of which could, of course, be done. And in the medium term, there is no reason why an independent Scotland should not be a respectable place. Perhaps even a thriving one. But the practical difficulties remain and some of these, such as the border and the question of mortgages denominated in a different currency from that in which those repaying them receive their wages, are questions that scarcely arose in 2014 when much of the Yes campaign’s argument was predicated on the assumption much less would change than you might fear. It was Project Reassurance even if it was also, often, Project Wishful Thinking.

“Our job is not just to deliver a referendum. Our job is to deliver independence” Sturgeon told the conference, putting to an end, I hope, the cute distinction she has previously made between so-called utilitarian and existential nationalists. Scratch the former and you usually find the latter. At its best, this might be thought a question of means and ends in which independence is the only means to an end measured by the betterment of the lives lived by the people of Scotland. Fair enough. But it is also, for some, a matter of the means mattering not a jot so long as the end is reached. Here too the parallels with the logic of Brexit are as acute as they are obvious.

SNP folk deplore these kinds of comparison but when Nicola Sturgeon says, as she did on the BBC at the weekend, that “It’s not my policies that are putting borders anywhere” she is not just emulating Brexiteer thought, she’s using exactly the same language.

Nationalists are nationalists and when push comes to shove they are more alike than they sometimes care to think. This is so despite the SNP being, at its best, the most boring nationalist party in Europe. That is no small thing and it remains an achievement worth recognising.

Where Sturgeon was on stronger ground in this speech was her assertion that the UK that 55 per cent of Scots voted to maintain in 2014 is no longer the UK apparent in 2019. And there is something in this. The capture of our two great parties by extremist factions pursuing policies alien to the largely moderate traditions of British politics does change matters; viewed from north of the border there is a distinct impression of some kind of nervous breakdown happening elsewhere. The Brexiteer right and the Trotskyite left are evidence enough of that. Each pursues a fanciful future of national impoverishment relative to what might have been expected had they been kept safely distant from the levers of government.

No wonder, then, that those Scots in the middle of this great ongoing constitutional rammy are tempted to think it doesn’t have to be like this. It is possible to say no; possible to forge a different future. Yes, it would be risky and difficult and fraught with danger but these would be our risks, our difficulties and, ultimately, our future. If Britain is sinking, must Scotland sink too?

That is, however you look at it, an intuitively appealing message and one that, yet again, is not so very different from the better arguments for Brexit even if it downplays the precise nature and extent of those difficulties, risks, and dangers. ‘Trust us, it will all be fine’ is an argument that should be less appealing than it was. We should know better than that even if I am unconvinced we do.

But, at a fundamental level, this is an argument only happening, only made possible, by Brexit. No Brexit; no prospect of a second referendum for the foreseeable future. “Once in a generation” would have meant something.

As matters stand, the dominant anti-independence argument coming from the south is that the Scots are cleverer than the English. They are not so foolish as to vote for a grand constitutional project of heroic dreams and wishful thinking that’s more likely to produce a prolonged period of national impoverishment. But, really, why couldn’t we be?

Outside events may yet impinge on all of this; the unexpected always happens in politics. Nevertheless, the fundamentals are – right now – shifting in favour of the nationalists. There remains no widespread enthusiasm for a second referendum but opposition to it is palpably softening. That is of a piece with a slow but steady increase in the number of Scots prepared to back independence. Those Scots, though, are not the Unionist problem: that problem is found amongst those Scots who are at least prepared to countenance an idea they cheerfully rejected just five years ago.

That in turn reflects this hard truth: the argument for Scottish independence is being made in London these days more than it is in Edinburgh or Glasgow. The pull of the idea is being matched with a push from the south. “It’s coming yet,” says Nicola Sturgeon because she has to say “It’s coming yet” but at some point it may actually do so even if it won’t happen as quickly as Sturgeon’s speech demanded it must. Beneath the froth and the pretended urgency, patience remains the real message.