Peter Jones: Cameron seeks way to outfox SNP

The PM faces a tricky balancing act, in which his promised EU vote is sure to play a big part, writes Peter Jones

A fox walks past No 10 earlier this year  the man inside will have to be just as wily in his dealings with SNP. Picture: Getty

Is there going to be another indyref? I’d say that is almost certain. But inside the next five years? I’d say that’s very doubtful. But unionists, particularly the Conservatives, could well shorten the odds of it happening if they are not very careful about what they do and say.

I’m pretty sure the default position of Nicola Sturgeon and the leadership team around her is that there should not be one any time soon. After all, 55 per cent on a record turn-out last September voted against independence. And the electorate was firmly told that this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity, which was generally taken to mean that there would not be another one for between 20 or 25 years. So holding one would not just break that assurance but would risk another defeat and put independence into cold storage for a long time. Ms Sturgeon did, however, give herself a get-out option, saying during the election that she could not imagine staging a second indyref unless there was a “material change in circumstances”. She gave, as an example, the EU membership referendum, which is now bound to happen, perhaps as early as next spring rather than 2017 as originally promised.

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If Britain as a whole voted to leave the EU, but Scotland voted to stay in, then there would be a case for another indyref. She is right: part of the case for staying in the Union is that the UK is a big player in the world and able to exert more influence to further British, and Scottish, interests than an independent Scotland would be able to do. But if Britain is no longer part of the EU, which is by far and away the most important world arena for Scotland’s interests, it could be argued that there is little point in maintaining the Union and that Scottish interests would be much better served by breaking away from it.

This in itself raises a number of interesting issues. If a No-to-the-EU vote weakens the Union, perhaps terminally so, does a Yes-to-the-EU vote strengthen it? And if it does, does that also mean Nationalists are being forced into a corner of campaigning for an outcome that does not serve their own party political cause?

And on the other side of the fence, there are unionists in Scotland who want Britain to be united but outside the EU. Would they still vote for a Brexit if that made it more likely that Scotland would exit the UK? Which union would they regard as the more important to their future?

But these are not the only domestic constitutional dilemmas that might be raised by the EU referendum. Suppose that England votes very narrowly to exit the EU but that the Scots vote by enough of a majority to maintain membership as to make the overall UK vote a stay-in one. Would English nationalists, by which I mean Ukippers and Conservative Eurosceptics, think they had been cheated? Generally speaking, their case for a Brexit is that Britain (by which they actually mean England) is being trampled underfoot by foreign politicians, Eurocrats and immigrants and is thereby being deprived of the kind of greatness and prosperity enjoyed in the past.

If they perceived that the chance to seize this glorious opportunity for Britain-England had been snatched away by Scots, and Scottish Nationalists in particular, would that also create a new kind of England-Scotland divide that might also weaken the Union?

That it is now possible to raise these kinds of questions as serious aspects of current political debate tells us two things. First, that the political mood of the electorate is being governed much more by deep-seated emotions and instinctive feelings than by cold rational analysis of facts and figures.

From that, a second conclusion follows: that politicians have to tread and think very carefully in what they do and say if they are not to stir up reactions with unintended consequences that are the opposite of what they intended to achieve.

As a minor but symbolically important illustration of this, consider the question of fox-hunting. The Tory manifesto commits the new government to holding a Commons vote on repeal of the ban on fox-hunting in England introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 2004.

As an England-only issue, SNP policy is to abstain. But SNP MPs are being lobbied by pro-animal rights people to vote to keep the ban.

Ms Sturgeon has not ruled out doing exactly that. What if Nationalist MPs do vote and turn out to be instrumental in preventing a repeal? Many Tory back-benchers would probably regard that as an insufferable Scottish intrusion into English affairs and say so loudly. The disinterested observer might say quite right. And on sorts of grounds, it would be Scottish interference. But that is entirely the wrong reaction if the bigger political goal is to defend and strengthen the Union.

After all, pre-devolution, the Conservative party had a long history of interfering in Scottish matters when it had no mandate from Scottish voters to do so. More relevantly, the referendum was fought on the basis that the Tories wanted, indeed welcomed, continued Scottish participation at Westminster. But if Scottish MPs are no longer welcome, both because they are Scottish and SNP, what does that say?

Ms Sturgeon could rapidly ramp up a rhetoric that says the Conservatives are rejecting the will of the Scottish people and actually saying that Scotland, not just its MPs, are not only unwanted at Westminster but also unable to get their democratically expressed wishes fulfilled.

One vote on fox-hunting might not be enough to cause tides to change, but if a number of similar such votes establish a pattern of what could be interpreted as anti-Scottish behaviour, then the door for a Scotexit could be pushed open.

Mr Cameron may have thought the day after the referendum that he had saved the Union. But the fact is that the No vote was just one battle in a long war.

It is a campaign in which he and his party will need to show much more dextrous footwork than in the indyref. And it is only just beginning.