Joyce McMillan: Sturgeon treading fine line amid EU turmoil

Nicola Sturgeon faces a call for another independence vote on the back of the EU referendum. Picture: Jane Barlow
Nicola Sturgeon faces a call for another independence vote on the back of the EU referendum. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE FIRST Minister must negotiate a sea change in Scottish politics and the turmoil sparked by the EU referendum, writes Joyce McMillan

For a long generation after Margaret Thatcher was elected Tory leader in 1975, it was pretty easy to identify the centre of gravity of Scottish politics. It could always be found at whatever point on the political spectrum seemed to offer the best practical chance of keeping the Tories’ new free market zealotry at bay, and defending the broad social-democratic outlines of the post-war setttlement; and for at least 30 years, that equation held good, as Labour and the Liberal Democrats built their reputation - inside and outside the Scottish Constitutional Convention - as the parties that would not abandon those values, and that would give us, for our protection, our own parliament within the UK.

The rest, of course, is history, and mostly has to do with the sharp rightward shift of Westminster politics during the 2000s. Gradually, like the figures in a weather house, the pattern of dominance in Scottish politics began to move; Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who had between them won 55 per cent of the votes in the first two Scottish Parliament elections, were steadily eclipsed as credible defenders of post-war values, and replaced by an SNP whose social-democratic rhetoric became ever more marked as the decade advanced. And today, that pattern remains outwardly the same, with the SNP riding high in the polls as inheritors of something like the same 55 per cent majority; cautiously left of centre, and definitely not impressed by the aggressive mercantile Toryism of the Cameron-Osborne government.

Yet for all that, something has nonetheless shifted in the Scottish body politic since the independence referendum of 2014. If it had all still been about defending social democracy, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, in September last year, would have caused at least some Scottish voters to return from SNP to the Labour Party. And the SNP, in government, would be suffering increasingly for its role in implementing Westminster spending cuts.

Yet neither of those things is happening; instead, having crossed the 2014 rubicon into the Yes-voting camp, many left-of-centre Scottish voters seem unlikely to return to any Unionist party, any time soon. And what this means, roughly speaking, is that Scottish politics no longer has a centre of gravity. It has a large Yes-supporting minority which now broadly embodies the centre-left tradition, and an even larger No-supporting majority so diverse and disgruntled in its views – from Ukip on the right to diehard Labour Corbynites on the left – that it would struggle to agree on the menu for a coffee morning, never mind a future programme for Scotland.

• READ MORE: Ex-SNP leader warns Nicola Sturgeon over EU and fresh Scots referendum

And it’s through this much-changed and relatively volatile landscape that the normally sure-footed Nicola Sturgeon must navigate, as we approach the Scottish Parliament elections in May, and the European referendum just seven weeks later. She will find it easy, of course, to ignore the avalanches of visceral excitement unleashed within the Westminster bubble by the EU referendum, mainly because of the spectacular Tory split exposed by it, and the prospect of a prolonged Sixth Form Common Room punch-up between Dave and Boris.

What may be more difficult, though, is for the First Minister to resist the siren call of those in her own party who are equally over-excited by the prospect of a vote that may show up a difference of opinion between Scotland and England; in essence, they simply can’t believe that Scots, faced with the prospect of being forced to leave the EU against their wishes, wouldn’t immediately embrace independence as the obvious remedy.

Yet Nicola Sturgeon is wise to take a cautious line on any possible second referendum, for at least three reasons. First, no matter what signals she is receiving from the 45 per cent who voted yes, she knows that the referendum was lost by a substantial margin just 18 months ago, and that a second lost referendum within a decade would be a disaster for her party. Secondly, she recognises that whatever its final outcome for Scotland, a Brexit would cause a mighty upheaval in the economic prospects of everyone in Britain and Ireland, and would create at least one troublesome new “EU border” somewhere in these islands; she is therefore right to hope for a “remain” vote from the whole of the UK, and to campaign vigorously for it.

And finally, even if England does vote to leave, and Scotland to remain, there is no guarantee that, following such a traumatic debate, Scots will rush to vote for yet more change. My guess is that if the vote does go against British EU membership, the whole British, European and global establishment will start working flat out to minimise the impact of the vote, talking soothingly of the need for prolonged negotiations, and of the need for David Cameron to stay in office. A mood of “keep calm and see what develops” may well prevail; and given the fact that there are plenty of eurosceptics in Scotland, the chances of a Scottish consensus emerging both for a new independence referendum, and for a Yes vote, seem close to zero.

And as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon can never afford to ignore that lack of consensus; or to appear like a woman obsessed by that idea of independence, and by repeated referendums on it.

On the contrary, she has to continue to appear as the kind of common-sense, competent, slightly left-of-centre leader Scotland still seems to want; she has to keep trying to draw in some of those who mistrust the SNP, by focussing strongly on key bread-and-butter issues of health, education, land use, energy, and jobs.

Scottish independence remains most likely to be won, in other words, as a by-product of a powerful, convincing programme for the future, that only an independent Scotland can implement. And although that truth may be a tough one for the SNP to swallow, at a time of such intense constitutional debate across the UK, it remains no less true.

There is no majority for Scottish independence yet; and if there is ever to be one, it will have to be built on something more enduring and more positive than mere fear of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, and of the day when – perhaps – one of them finally stands at the door of No10 Downing Street.