Joyce McMillan: SNP faces huge decisions over Brexit and Scottish independence

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SNP must show they care more for the common weal than for the ideology of independence given the dangers posed by Brexit, writes Joyce McMillan.

THERE was a brief flurry of excitement around Holyrood, earlier this week, when someone suggested that the former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale might be thinking of quitting Labour, and joining the SNP. Ms Dugdale had just been badly let down by the Labour Party over her legal costs in a libel action brought against her by Wings Over Scotland blogger Stuart Campbell; and of course, there has been some idle speculation about her party loyalty ever since the summer of last year, when she stepped down as leader, and announced that she was in a relationship with SNP MSP Jenny Gilruth.

Nicola Sturgeon faces some tough decisions that could be crucial to the cause of independence (Picture: John Devlin)

Nicola Sturgeon faces some tough decisions that could be crucial to the cause of independence (Picture: John Devlin)

What was interesting about this brief burst of interest in Ms Dugdale’s future, though, was not so much the prospect – small, at best – of her making a change of allegiance, but the vicious response the idea aroused in some nationalist quarters. Within minutes, a small but noisy cohort of independence supporters were raging around on Twitter denouncing Dugdale as a traitor who had allied with the Tories to destroy Scotland’s chance of independence in 2014. Old quotes were raked up and flourished like bloody battlefield spoils; and a general impression was given that anyone who had campaigned for a “no” vote in 2014 had put him or herself forever beyond the pale, in terms of SNP membership.

Now when discussing Twitter storms, it is aways as well to remember that three or four people who share a strong view can make enough noise on social media to sound like an advancing army; I doubt if a majority of the SNP’s current 120,000 strong membership – many of them former Labour supporters themselves – would greet a Kezia Dugdale conversion with this kind of hostility.

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Yet the sheer racket caused by this tribal minority came as a stern reminder of the difficulty Nicola Sturgeon faces, in persuading some independence supporters to face not inward to the echo-chamber of their own movement, but outward, towards the 55 per cent or so of Scottish voters who are still – at best – unpersuaded by the argument for independence. And this weekend, at the SNP conference in Glasgow, that tension will be played out on and off stage, between an activist base, some of whom are desperate for another independence referendum before Brexit takes effect next March, and a leadership and wider membership who are all too conscious that hundreds of thousands in the cautious middle ground of Scottish politics must be addressed and persuaded, if another independence referendum is to result in a “yes” vote.

Nor is the question of whether and when Scotland should seek another referendum the only tough decision facing the First Minister this autumn; for the coming Brexit crisis, whatever form it takes, will involve steering a path through some of the roughest white water ever seen in British politics. The first and starkest decision involves whether or not the Scottish Government – as committed remainers – should support the growing call for a People’s Vote on whatever final deal Theresa May cuts, or fails to cut, with the EU 27, with the option of remaining in the EU firmly on the ballot paper.

At present the First Minister – no doubt conscious of the substantial minority of leave voters among her own supporters – contents herself with saying that she would not stand in the way of a second EU referendum, and would be “perfectly happy” to see one take place. As the heat is turned up at Westminster this autumn, though, that holding position may not be enough; and if the SNP fails to support an increasingly widespread call for a second EU vote, it will run the risk of appearing like a party not seriously interested in preventing the damage likely to be inflicted by Brexit, but rather poised to take advantage of it for its own political gain.

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And at the same time, the SNP will face an even tougher decision about how to respond at Westminster, if May brings back a deal which at least fends off the worst possible impacts of a no-deal Brexit. At the moment, all the major opposition parties at Westminster, including the SNP, are sworn to oppose any deal based on the ill-fated Chequers agreement.

Yet if – come November or December – a May deal hatched up this month is still the only available alternative to no deal at all, the opposition parties will surely come under increasing pressure to support what may, by that stage, be the only arrangement that stands between us and a disastrous crash out of the EU. It seems unlikely, for example, that the Scottish business community, large and small, would ever forgive a Holyrood Government whose Westminster MPs voted to bring down their last remaining chance of continuing tariff-free trade with Europe, particularly if the Tories and DUP then romped ahead to vote resoundingly for no deal.

This week, Robin McAlpine of the independence-supporting think tank Common Weal argued that the SNP leadership is losing touch with its membership – that the members “want to be in a conversation with Scotland about making it new and better, while the leadership want to be in a conversation about Brexit with any establishment figure who will pat them on the head”; and after 11 years of SNP Government at Holyrood, there is an almost inevitable grain of truth in that criticism.

Yet given the scale of the threat Brexit poses to Scotland’s economic well-being and confidence, and even to its present constitutional settlement, the Scottish Government’s focus on it is understandable. And unless they demonstrate, in this moment of crisis, that the prevention of Brexit-related damage is their primary concern – that they care more for the immediate common weal than for the ideology of independence – then they risk alienating the undecided, and setting back their own cause by decades; and being tarred with the same brush as the ideologically driven retro-nationalists of the Tory right, who seem to believe that any price is worth paying for the dream of absolute national sovereignty, even if, for ordinary citizens, it means nothing but more austerity and poverty, and the heartbreaking loss of half a century’s worth of hard-won human rights.