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Brexit won’t hand victory to the SNP. A unionists’ breakdown just might.

26 June 2016

2:09 PM

26 June 2016

2:09 PM

Over the last few years, Scots have had to get used to Nicola Sturgeon telling them what they think. When the SNP had its majority (one the voters stripped away in the recent Holyrood election) she was keen to present herself as the voice of the country: l’Ecosse, c’est moi. If the SNP wants X, then Scotland wants X. She’s at it again, saying that the UK has voted out of the European Union and Scotland has voted in – so the UK was voting ‘against the interests of the Scottish people’ and finally provided the provocation needed to launch a new referendum.

In fact, two-in-five Scots – and even a third of SNP voters – supported Brexit. Last week, a TNS poll suggested that 72 per cent of Scots would vote to Remain: the end result was 62 per cent. Yes, far higher than the 48 per cent in England. But it does not automatically follow that Scotland loves Brussels so much that she’d break the Union with England to stay in the European Union. A Sunday Times poll today, taken after the Brexit vote, shows 52 per cent of Scots would vote to Leave. That figure would need to be consistently at 60 per cent for Sturgeon to risk a second referendum, as she has always said. As Hamish Macdonnell tells me in our Coffee House shots podcast (below), Brexit may have changed her calculation. But it absolutely does not follow that Brexit means the SNP triumphing in a new referendum.

Before last week, there were eight polls asking Scots if they’d want to separate from the UK in the event of Brexit. As the below chart shows, it’s far from conclusive: Brexit made ‘yes’ a bit more likely (on average, increasing ‘yes’ by about four points) but it’s just not a transformation. As John Curtice says, these eight polls were dealing with a hypothetical: now, it’s real – and that could change things. A Sunday Post poll today, for example, puts support for separation at 59 per cent.

But Sturgeon is one of the most formidable politicians in Europe, let alone Britain. She senses that she can change the political weather, especially given that almost all her main opponents were against Brexit. And, as a result, that a lot of people in London are going a little bit mad right now. The whole vibe of Andrew Cooper’s Project Fear meant that David Cameron and others had to predict the end of the union, amongst other signs of societal collapse, if Britain voted out. So for months,  the UK government was reinforcing the SNP’s message: that Brexit would mean another independence referendum.

Cameron’s unexpected decision to quit on Friday, rather than stay on for longer and provide a period of stability, has created a vacuum in Westminster. There seems to have been no contingency plan upon losing the referendum – which nationalists in Scotland and Ireland are now exploiting. And rather than confront the nationalists, a lot of Remainers, even in the Cabinet, seem to be actively on the lookout for the meltdown that they promised: keen to point to the arrival of the plague of locusts, etc. Many Scottish unionist politicians commentators, who also were strongly against Brexit, locked themselves into the same line of argument: Brexit would mean victory to Sturgeon! For weeks, Sturgeon has found – to her surprise and delight – some of her most eloquent adversaries agreeing with her on this point.
So Sturgeon’s opportunity lies not so much in the Brexit vote, but in the current Westminster meltdown. Labour? In chaos. Tories? In choose. And the rest? As anyone’s Twitter feed will attest, a lot of people in Westminster and Fleet St are not really thinking straight. George Osborne hasn’t been seen for days. Ruth Davidson is one of many Scottish Tories who loathes Boris, and some are even talking about declaring independence from the UK Conservative Party if he becomes leader.

It might be weeks, perhaps months, before we get any sense out of the UK government. The old order has resigned, a new order will take months to arrive. This is precisely why Cameron shouldn’t have resigned when he did: politics abhors a vacuum, but insurgents love one. Sturgeon can exploit the confusion while her enemies are primarily concerned with arguing about who’s to blame for the confusion.

As someone who converted to “Leave” late on (and with much sadness) I don’t feel tribal about this. The EU has not been one of my main interests. I disagree with the Remainers who think Brexit is the end of the world and the Leavers who think this is the dawn of a new utopia. But if some of the finest minds in politics succumb to referendum rage – either in a huff, or spending all day on Twitter looking for someone to fight with – then we might have a problem. As David Cameron put it, I feel a thousand times more strongly about the UK union than the European Union. My concern right now is that the two sides of the Brexit campaign won’t stop fighting each other – playing right into Sturgeon’s hands.

The SNP’s politics are all about verbal tricks and snares: how to conjure up the idea of the Scottish people growing apart from the English. The SNP exists to file for divorce from England on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. In truth, pubic opinion in Scotland and England has been converging since devolution and Scots agree on mostly everything: even the need for tuition fees (see here for more details).

The public mood in Scotland hasn’t changed that much. The North Sea oil price hasn’t picked up. But the post-Brexit political meltdown being suffered by Sturgeon’s opponents means she faces perhaps the greatest chance she’ll get to pursue a second vote. She is now witnessing what the delighted Tories witnessed this time last year: the sudden and unexpected implosion of one’s main adversaries.

As we have seen today, she’s lost no time in pursuing this opportunity. As Tony Blair might have put it: the kaleidoscope has been shaken, its pieces are in flux. Sturgeon wants to reorder the world – or, at least, the Scotland – around her.


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