Tom Peterkin: Has Nicola Sturgeon cracked '˜whiplash of fear'?

Nicola Sturgeon has been circumspect, until now. She refused to 'speculate' on indyref2 when she took part in her ITV debate with the former London mayor Boris Johnson

Nicola Sturgeon has been circumspect, until now. She refused to speculate on indyref2 when she took part in her ITV debate. Picture: Getty Images

The memorable turn of phrase which has served Jim Sillars so well throughout a long political career has not deserted him.

Yesterday the SNP veteran accused Nicola Sturgeon of using the “whiplash of fear” when he described her efforts to persuade voters to back EU membership next week.

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Sillars’ denunciation of the SNP leader was a small sign that some life is being breathed into what has been a pretty moribund EU debate north of the Border. It was what passes for a moment of frisson in the dreary round of non-events, which have characterised a rather sterile Scottish debate. Somehow the Scottish end of this referendum has failed to capture the imagination in the way that it has fizzed and crackled south of the Border.

Despite the enormity of what’s at stake, there is no doubt that next week’s vote has so far seen little of the passion or excitement that was aroused by the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

Perhaps that has been because there has always been the assumption that Scotland was overwhelmingly pro-EU and that this is a battle where the victor will be determined south of the Border. It is also true to say that the immigration issue is not as big an issue in the wide open spaces of Scotland as it is in the more densely populated areas of England.

Moreover, there has been an absence of “characters” on both sides of the debate.

South of the Border the Leave campaign has been dominated by the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, two individuals who – whatever one thinks of their views – can be political box office.

From the media’s point of view there has also been the stories generated by the “blue on blue” attacks as David Cameron’s Tories have laid into one another on Europe. There are Eurosceptic Conservatives in Scotland, but they have largely kept their counsel.

The sotto voce nature of the Leave campaign in Scotland was illustrated by Mr Sillars’ press conference yesterday – a low key event which saw him seated next to the former Conservative MSP Brian Monteith and attended by a handful of hacks.

In terms of personalities, the Leave campaign in Scotland has had to make do with the former Labour MPs Nigel Griffiths and Tom Harris. Ukip’s David Coburn has done little more than provide some comic relief for those with a questionable sense of humour. Mr Sillars has tried to articulate the arguments for Leave from an SNP perspective, but it has all been a bit B list.

But, according to Strathclyde University professor of politics John Curtice, the fundamental reason that the debate has not taken off is down to Scotland’s domestic Nationalist politics.

“The crucial difference between Scotland and England is that the sovereignty issue plays out differently,” Professor Curtice said.

“In England and Wales the argument is that we don’t like being inside the European Union because they tell us what to do and we think that infringes our sovereignty.

“In Scotland the SNP’s message is that being inside the EU is the way in which our nationalist aspiration can be realised. It is a very differently framed argument.”

It also happens to be an argument that is not without contradiction, a notion which was neatly summed up by Mr Sillars yesterday. He claimed “more and more” SNP members were coming out to campaign for Leave. He added: “I am finding that more and more of those who voted Yes in 2014 telling me they cannot understand the contradiction between wanting out of the Union with London to get into a bigger union run by Brussels.”

Mr Sillars’ remarks appeared to be backed up by yesterday’s Ipsos Mori poll conducted for STV news.

It suggested that although Remain was still ahead in Scotland, support for staying in the EU had fallen by 13 per cent over the past six weeks.

The strong suspicion is that it is the realisation that the Remain camp is not getting it all its own way in Scotland that has spurred Ms Sturgeon into action.

Until recently, the SNP establishment’s contribution to the Remain campaign has been lacklustre. Almost the only thing of note was Ms Sturgeon’s willingness to criticise David Cameron and co for being too negative.

This week, however, the tightening of the polls has encouraged Ms Sturgeon to indulge in some negativity of her own. Hence, her claims this morning that Brexit would leave Scotland at the mercy of extreme UK Conservatives.

It was a noticeable change of tone from the First Minister at a time when the UK’s position in the EU is looking extremely precarious.

A Brexit vote has all sorts of implications for her and the SNP. There are the hardliners within the party whose demands for a second Scottish independence referendum will reach a crescendo if there is a divergence between Scotland and England in terms of their attitude towards Europe. It is this crowd that Alex Salmond was playing to when he debated with Boris Johnson this week, repeating his belief that Brexit would trigger a second Scottish independence referendum.

On this issue Ms Sturgeon has been circumspect recently. She refused to “speculate” on indyref2 when she took part in her ITV debate with the former London mayor. Asking Scotland to plump for independence from the rest of the UK, which is outwith the EU, is not without difficulties. As is managing the expectations of her party. There are all sorts of reasons for Ms Sturgeon to resort to the “whiplash of fear”.