Blair McDougall: SNP on wrong end of its own angry populism

Nicola Sturgeon will have you believe that everything has changed since more than two million Scots gave her a clear No in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

'A quick browse of the opinion polls suggests not much has changed since 2014', writes Blair McDougall. Picture: John Devlin

A browse of the opinion polls suggests not much has changed at all.

Despite the drama of the Brexit vote, most recent polls show no change in support for leaving the UK since the 2014 decision, and strong opposition to rushing into another vote so soon.

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A Scottish National Party that immediately described the democratic choice of Scots as a “not yet” has pounced on Brexit to justify ignoring that vote and having a re-run of the decision we made then.

Blair McDougall, who led the Better Together campaign. Picture: Jane Barlow

If you are in any doubt about the fact that its manoeuvres are driven by political calculations rather than deep principle, read the party’s manifesto.

Yes, it cites Brexit but it also says that it would be right to re-run the referendum if polls showed that the SNP thought it could win one.

Brexit was only ever an excuse for a party that never accepted the clear decision of Scotland to remain in the UK.

That’s not to say that I don’t understand the anger many Scots share over Brexit. As someone who campaigned for a vote to Remain in the EU, I’m angry too.

Blair McDougall, who led the Better Together campaign. Picture: Jane Barlow

However, one act of short-sighted economic vandalism by nationalists cannot excuse another. The same reasons that make it bad to leave the European Union make it worse to leave the UK union.

Four times better to stay

By the nationalist government’s own figures, the EU accounts for £12bn of Scottish trade. The UK union accounts for £50bn – four times as much trade.

The EU has offered opportunities to 135,000 Scots who live and work in other nations of the union. The UK union has offered opportunities to live and work to more than half a million Scots.

Four times as many people benefit.

Erecting a hard border between the UK and Scotland and leaving the UK single market makes even less sense than the arguments made to leave the EU.

The lack of any sort of movement towards the nationalist cause in the polls is partly explained by the movement of those who voted Yes in 2014 and Leave in 2016 – away from independence now that it is so explicitly tied into an application to join the EU.

It is not surprising that voters who responded to an anti-establishment message about sharing power in London are now sympathetic to the same sort of messages about power being shared in Brussels.

It is fascinating to watch the SNP on the wrong end of its own angry populism.

Of course, some things are radically different since Sturgeon led her 2014 campaign.

The economic case she made then relied on oil revenues of up to £8bn a year just to keep Scotland’s higher public spending at the level we enjoy now.

With the collapse in oil prices, almost every penny of that money has gone. Last time, the Yes campaign claimed the moral authority of opposing austerity.

This time, on the SNP Government’s own figures, voting to leave the UK means cuts or tax rises somewhere upwards of £9bn just to stand still.

To put that into context, the Scottish Government estimates that Brexit will mean a loss to the public finances of between £2bn and £4bn by 2030.

It is fashionable to believe that facts matter less than emotion in modern politics, but the facts hand a powerful emotional argument to any campaign to remain in the UK.

This time, those campaigning to remain in the UK are the clear defenders of the National Health Service, school budgets, and the benefits, pensions and tax credits of people across Scotland.

The currency issue

Then there is the issue that nationalists blame for their losing last time. Which currency would Scotland use?

A review with the answer to that question now sits on Sturgeon’s desk, unpublished. Having argued so strongly that keeping the pound was the best choice for Scotland, the First Minister has now lost confidence in that policy.

The alternatives are an unattractive range of options which the nationalists have themselves already rubbished. Using the pound informally is the only course of action that her economic advisers ruled out.

Sturgeon has said repeatedly that establishing a new currency means huge costs for businesses doing trade with our biggest market in the UK.

She will be desperate to avoid the euro, though the EU has said that if Scotland applies to join it would have to go through the same process that has seen every other new EU state sign up to the single currency.

These are choices she cannot avoid, though, and whichever she goes for will have negative effects on trade, the funding of public services and the standard of living for millions of Scots.

People in Scotland are increasingly wearied by all of this uncertainty and division. They suffer because they are ruled by ministers who view governing as a distraction from the day job of campaigning to leave the UK.

A distracted SNP?

It is now more than a year since the Scottish Parliament passed a Bill. Child poverty is increasing, as is inequality.

The Education Minister, having cut teacher numbers by 4,000, suggests that lessons might be broadcast into classrooms by video.

In his own local school, the headmaster has written to parents to ask for volunteers to teach maths. Numbers of Scottish students in further education are at the lowest level on record.

The nationalists now talk of a decade of transition to get back to where we are. The new powers of the Scottish Parliament, so noisily demanded at the last referendum, gather dust on the shelf.

With full powers over income tax in Scotland, the SNP decided not to change anything.

Having castigated the Tories for cutting income tax for the richest, it combined with the Tories in the Scottish Parliament to block a Labour attempt to bring back the 50p top rate of tax.

The chance to do things differently on social security – a central theme of the Yes campaign – has been missed as the transfer of welfare powers has been delayed at the SNP’s request.

That is one last thing that has changed since 2014. Then, the poor record of the Tory government drove people towards a vote to leave the UK.

This time, people previously on both the Yes and No sides are scunnered at the thought of yet another referendum, and they are drawing a link between the poor performance of public services and an SNP government whose priorities lie elsewhere.

The better future for Scots is not to join in the global trend of turning in on ourselves.

We can share resources and opportunities with the friends who share this small island.

We can make alliances with them to fight, not flee the nationalists of different stripes who would make us smaller, poorer and leave us more divided.

And we can get on with the difficult work of real political change, rather than looking for easy answers.

• Blair McDougall directed the Better Together campaign for the Scottish independence referendum in 2014