Nicola Sturgeon rides to the rescue. That’s how the more excitable Remainers are billing the SNP leader’s eleventh-hour intervention on Brexit. And it is eleventh-hour, for Sturgeon has been vacillating on the issue for months now. She instinctively believes in EU membership, but independence not Brexit is still the foremost dividing line in Scottish politics.
Since 1988 the SNP’s policy has been ‘independence in Europe’. For much of the past thirty years, that position has gone unchallenged, except at the margins and among the old timers for whom sovereignty, rather than the autonomous interdependence of the EU, remained the goal.
Among the party membership, now standing at 125,000, Brexiteers are a small minority. But among SNP voters, the picture is very different. Around a third of them backed Leave in 2016 and the party hierarchy is at turns dismissive, resentful and terrified of them. These voters are vital if the Nationalists are to turn a third term at Holyrood into a fourth. If the SNP rebuffs them, they will be warmly embraced by born-again Brexiteer Ruth Davidson. Yet if the party were to give them what they want, and drop its opposition to Brexit, it could deliver a death blow to the independence project. Quitting either the UK or European single market would be painful enough; quitting both would require severe fiscal and economic adjustments. The SNP’s semi-serious Growth Commission report hinted at some modest fiscal restraint as the cost of independence and even that prompted a revolt among the dream-dazed fanatics of the grassroots. That is why this landmark document, originally intended to be a blueprint for a second independence referendum, has not been mentioned at SNP conference in Glasgow.
The longest shoulder shrug in political history has come to an end because winsome indecision is no longer cutting it for Sturgeon. She has started to look less like a relatable captive of Westminster’s chaotic Brexit and more like a feckless opportunist hoping anarchy will shift the polls towards independence. Now she says her MPs would be willing to back a second EU referendum. Initially, the party tried to link its support to a guarantee that, should Scotland again vote Remain while the UK voted Leave, the Holyrood parliament would get to call another vote on independence. No offer being forthcoming, the Nationalists now look likely to vote against whatever Theresa May brings back from Brussels.
Of the many misconceptions about the SNP to stalk the English national psyche — and this applies equally to the English left and right — the most fanciful is that this is a progressive party. At the party’s Glasgow conference, delegates are currently taking to the podium one after another to rail against the iniquity of fuel duty rises. The SNP truly is the national party of Scotland in that it replicates the Scottish tradition of radical rhetoric and timorous policy. Nicola Sturgeon could have championed a soft Brexit from the get-go but she chose to pursue another independence poll. When it became clear we were heading for a hard Brexit, she could have led the campaign for a People’s Vote but she chose to duck for cover and hope it all worked out.
Sturgeon has sent her troops into battle so late, all that’s left for the SNP to do is tweet their condolences on the bayonetting of the wounded. She insists on a Brexit that involves remaining in the single market and the customs union because she knows such a Brexit is no longer viable. Thus, her MPs can vote against any deal, knowing they have both opposed Brexit and done nothing to stop it. Number 10 was always going to have to factor in 35 no votes from the SNP. Sturgeon’s studied avoidance of the People’s Vote campaign until the last possible minute robbed that effort of momentum and has made May’s job easier.
Brexit is happening — in one form or another — and now it falls to the SNP to devise a new policy on Europe that takes into account that third of its voter base which reviles rule from both Westminster and Brussels. Would an independent Scotland be a member of the European Union? Would it seek expedited accession or park itself in the EFTA for as long as possible? Would it adopt the euro? Would Scotland favour trade with Europe or with our biggest customers south of the border? What about the Common Fisheries Policy, loathed by north east trawlermen? Who would decide on our place in Europe? Would there be a referendum or would the independent Scottish Parliament vote on it? These, and many more, are questions the SNP are not ready to answer, but they are coming down the road nonetheless.
Brexit has little to fear from Nicola Sturgeon, but Brexit is only just beginning to impact her and her party’s mission of independence.