Post-Brexit uncertainty is driving demands for new referenda, says Paris Gourtsoyannis
They lacked the star power of Boris Johnson or the grim fascination of Nigel Farage and his posters making political capital from the plight of refugees, so you would forgiven for not remembering the role played during the European referendum by a group that called itself SNP Vote Leave.
It was a motley crew of Nationalists fighting to take the UK out of the EU, including Jim Sillars and Jim Fairlie, the father of Michelin-starred chef Andrew. They argued strongly that Brexit would give the Scottish Parliament more powers, and sent a contingent of North-east fishing boats to the Brexit flotilla that gave the EU referendum its most innocent and madcap day.
But because everyone knew Scotland would vote heavily in favour of staying in the EU, and because they made their case in a fairly consistent and reasonable way, the group was regarded as a bit of a curio.
Perhaps we should have paid more attention. During the campaign, one of the group’s organisers, a life-long SNP man, told me he had spoken with no fewer than nine local party conveners concerned at the impact of an influx of new members into their constituency branches.
Membership of the SNP surged from around 75,000 to 120,000 following Brexit as Scots horrified at the result flocked to the party, but a post-indyref influx of roughly 50,000 new members meant the party was already looked very different at grass roots level by the time of the EU referendum.
According to my eurosceptic SNP contact, these branch conveners were afraid that the demand from new members for a snap independence referendum wouldn’t be able to be contained if the UK voted for Brexit.
Fast-forward a few months and his fears were confirmed by an SNP MP I spoke to last week, who told me the former Labour members brought into the fold since the Brexit vote were the ones shouting the loudest for a second independence referendum, right now.
They have none of the patience of their lifelong Nationalist counterparts, some of whom spent generations waiting and wishing for the conditions that allowed the 2014 independence referendum to take place.
I thought of those conversations this weekend while reading Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that the fight for independence “transcends” all other questions facing Scotland, including the state of its economy, the collapse in the price of oil, and even its future in Europe.
The idea of “transcendental independence” as a state of yogic bliss provoked some mirth, but the comments beg the question: how much pressure is Ms Sturgeon under within the SNP to call a second independence referendum? Judging by the way she has ramped up pro-independence sentiment since the Brexit vote, it must be considerable, despite the fact that appetite for another referendum among the weary voting public at large seems to be limited.
Even among her group of MPs, cooler heads are arguing for calm, too, with the notable exception of Alex Salmond, who believes a second vote should take place within two years.
Few elected members at Westminster want a referendum they would lose, risking a Quebec scenario where not only is the issue off the table potentially for good, but also destroying the credibility of nationalists as a party of government.
Ms Sturgeon’s uncomfortable tightrope walk reflects the uncertainty of the post-Brexit era, where every political party seems to be struggling with conflicting interests. She also seems to have imbibed the spirit of the Brexit vote in apparently distancing herself from the detailed economic arguments for independence made in 2014, in favour of appealing to the heart. Transcendental independence has all the sophistication of “take back control”. It suggests some in the SNP looked on with envy as Brexiteers with no plan for how to take the UK out of Europe seduced the electorate with little more than a slogan. The SNP isn’t the only party that wants to ask the public to reconsider an issue they have only just given their verdict on.
Yesterday at their conference, the Lib Dems became the first major party adopt a policy of having a second referendum on EU membership. They are keen not to portray this as rejecting the will of the people, or re-running the same vote and simply reversing the judgement on Brexit.
Instead, it would be a two-question poll on whether to accept terms of the eventual deal to leave the EU, and if not, whether the UK should retain its membership of the bloc.
In making his case for a second referendum – one that wasn’t universally accepted by his own party members – party leader Tim Farron also reflected the realities of post-Brexit politics.
In a Q&A session with party members dominated by queries on the party’s strategy for a second EU referendum, Mr Farron argued that the Brexit side was successful because it presented voters with a blank sheet of paper to fill with their own hopes, hatreds and aspirations. Against the imperfect status quo, which few made any real impassioned argument for, a campaign that never dashed the unfulfilled wishes of its supporters was always more likely to succeed.
Speaking to me last week, Mr Salmond suggested the next independence referendum campaign would see a new white paper, but hinted it be a very different document from the one that failed to convince a majority two years ago. He expressed “regret” that the SNP’s currency policy favouring a sterling union with the rest of the UK was presented as the only option, and said a future prospectus for independence should reflect a wider set of views, so that more supporters can see what they want to see in it.
Mr Farron, too, was honest about the type of campaign waged if the Lib Dems get their second referendum. Once details of the UK’s Brexit deal are confirmed, campaigners will present their own blank sheet, star-spangled as the EU flag.