Alex Massie

Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘two referendums’ ploy is nonsense

Nicola Sturgeon's 'two referendums' ploy is nonsense
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Nicola Sturgeon has not hitherto often been considered a humorist but she is busy revealing a new side to her character in this general election. This is pleasing for many reasons but not least because this election already needs some levity. 

Consider the article written by – or, rather, for – Sturgeon and published at the weekend in the pro-independence rag The National.

In it, the first minister does her best to extricate herself from a predicament entirely of her own making. The SNP, you see, are running an election campaign predicated on the suggestion there should be two new referendums next year. Not only should there be another Brexit referendum – the terms and conditions of which are still to be decided – but there must also be a second referendum on Scottish independence. 

Indyref2 is justified because Brexit has changed everything. It is just the kind of “material change in circumstance”, as the SNP’s manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood elections put it, that merits revisiting and reconsidering the national question. This, it requires saying, is a perfectly respectable position even if its counter, that a once in a generation referendum really must be that regardless of subsequent events or changes in circumstance, is also both plausible and respectable. But, as you will gather, it all hinges on Brexit. 

So the sequencing of the SNP’s Two Referendum demands matters. And here logic is not on the nationalists’ side. It is inconceivable that even if Jeremy Corbyn made it into Downing Street while depending on SNP support that Labour could agree to organising Indyref2 before it tackled Brexit2. So Brexit must come first. 

It must also do so because time and time again Nicola Sturgeon has cautioned her own supporters to remember this is a time for patience, not recklessness. It would be irresponsible, as she herself has said, to ask the people of Scotland to vote on independence again before the shape and meaning of Brexit is clear. This too has the merit of being a respectable position. 

Awkwardly, the shape and meaning of Brexit remains less than clear. From which, following Sturgeon’s own logic, now is not the time for a second independence referendum. Even if some clarity arrives in February or the spring, it will still take time for the future relationship between the UK and the EU – upon which so much hinges – to be determined. That in turn sets the likely parameters for some of the details of the future relationship between a putatively independent Scotland seeking to join the EU and the rump United Kingdom. So the detail actually does matter. 

But even if you ignored all this or considered it trifling, it’s stupendously unlikely that there could be time to legislate for Brexit2 and Indyref2 and hold them both next year. But, still, let us grant – just for the sake of indulging fantastical policy preferences – that it could be. And then suppose that Brexit2 is held and the United Kingdom changes its mind and decides Brexit was a terrible blunder, of which we will never speak again? That is, suppose there’s a Remain vote. 

Notionally, or rather logically, this would sink the case for Indyref2 as the facts which made it – by the SNP’s own argument – necessary would no longer apply. The UK would be staying in the EU. Cunningly Nicola Sturgeon has an answer to that: 

“Because even if there is a second EU referendum - and even if the UK doesn’t leave - the risk is that Brexit will continue to consume UK politics for years to come. Nigel Farage, Arron Banks et al are not simply going to shrug their shoulders and go home.” 

As I say, who knew Nicola Sturgeon had such a sense of humour? Heaven forbid that people might bang on about such matters despite suffering the inconvenience of losing a referendum on a subject of major constitutional importance. As the poet put it, “O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us/To see ourself as ithers see us!” 

Little of this need be taken terribly seriously. Clever SNP types – and this includes the first minister – know Indyref2 is not happening next year. That’s a battle to be settled by the Holyrood 2021 election (by which time Scottish politics may look rather different). This is something the Scottish Tories know and this remains so no matter how much the UK party might pretend that a cast-iron victory for pro-independence forces at that election would not and could not and should not count for anything. 

Even so, the Two Referendums in 2020 policy is a piece of nonsense. It is sold to the credulous by people who do not believe in it themselves except to the extent that they wish to be some of the credulous folk too. You might think this cynical but it’s electioneering and therefore not something to be taken too seriously. 

Nor will its abundant absurdity and evident impossibility matter. The SNP will win this election in Scotland and the chief question is whether they do so with more than 45 seats (a good result) or fewer than 45 (a mildly disappointing one). Framing the election around independence, however, is both necessary and useful. The SNP needs to get its vote out and pains to Remainia offer little to the voters upon whose fate the SNP depends. 

That framing suits the Tories well too for whom the threat of Indyref2 plus the horror of Corbyn being propped up by Sturgeon is their preferred kind of campaign too. They also know Indyref2 is not likely to happen next year but Unionism must always be a belt-and-braces sensibility these days.

Still, all this posturing and chicanery gives this election in Scotland a different quality to that being enjoyed in England and Wales. It is all fake and everyone knows it is fake but with the exception of the Labour party it suits everyone to pretend that all the phoniness is real. Which, in turn, makes it a more amusing contest than that being fought elsewhere too. 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator.

Topics in this articlePolitics