Bill Jamieson: Holding a second referendum is a big risk for the SNP
There comes a point when credibility is in question, and voters could react with contempt says Bill Jamieson
Does a second independence referendum loom just around the corner? “Bring it on!” declares Alex Salmond. The buzz around Holyrood is that First Minister Nichola Sturgeon may be planning to announce second referendum plans at the SNP party conference next month and that Prime Minister Theresa May is making contingency plans to deal with an ‘indyref2’ challenge to Brexit.
Boosting the buzz is a poll showing support for independence has risen after Theresa May revealed plans to exit the European Single Market. And with the SNP set to make more gains in the local elections in May, ‘Yes’ campaigners sense of a rising tide in favour of a second referendum.
It’s a prospect that will make others vomit blood. Many Scots will recoil at the prospect of another blazing indyref rammy running for another 18 months.
It’s less than three years since a ferocious and bitterly fought referendum delivered a seemingly decisive verdict. More than two million Scots - 55.3 per cent- voted against.
The outcome could hardly be quibbled over: the verdict was delivered on a turn-out of 84.6 per cent - the highest recorded for an election or referendum in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage.
But forget all that now. The assertion now is that the UK referendum vote on EU membership last June with 17.4 million (51.9 per cent) voting ‘Leave’ has changed the nature and direction of the UK.
Now we seem trapped in an endless referendum treadmill. Those who considered the independence issue settled for a generation will feel scunnered at the thought of all the old arguments being rehashed, and other issues – Scotland’s faltering economic performance chief among them - effectively put on the back burner.
Three arguments are advanced for a second run at independence. First, the Brexit vote is held to constitute a “material and significant change” in the UK with which Scots voted to remain. Scots may not have voted ‘No’ to independence had they known the UK would vote this way.
Second, a majority of Scots voted ‘Remain’ in the EU referendum: 1.6 million against 1.0 million for ‘Leave’ (on a turn-out of 67.2 per cent). They have been disenfranchised and their preference ignored.
Third, the signals from Theresa May that the UK government is moving toward a ‘hard’ Brexit – out of the Single Market and very likely outside the Customs Union. The SNP, by contrast, has pressed for continued membership of the Single Market and Customs Union. The prospect of local election gains in May with the continuing erosion of the already miserable Labour vote in Scotland would be taken as a validation of the SNP’s position. And earlier this week MSPs backed a motion rejecting the UK government’s proposal to implement Article 50 by 90 votes to 34 during a stormy debate at Holyrood.
But this was a UK-wide referendum, reflecting the wishes of UK voters as a whole. And more than a million Scots – 40 per cent - voted to leave, many of them independence supporters. They can also claim to being disenfranchised – this time by their own First Minister.
And an early second referendum would be to take a huge gamble with the hearts and minds of those quieter Scots who may have voted ‘No’ to independence and ‘Yes’ to EU Remain but who don’t grind out their girns and grievances on social media.
Why has talk of a second independence referendum resurfaced now? In truth, it has never gone away. For more than a year the First Minister has repeatedly insisted on a second referendum. But the latest timing options for a referendum in August of next year is not entirely of her own making. It would come before the two-year Article 50 deadline expires and the UK leaves the EU, for after this, an independent Scotland would have to negotiate membership from outside the EU.
Hence the suggestions that the SNP leader would call for a second indyref at the party conference next month and the talk that Theresa May is believed to be “war gaming” with the Scotland Office and Ruth Davidson in preparation.
Lack of enthusiasm for an indyref re-run might suggest a more emphatic vote ‘No’ to independence this time around. Don’t be too sure: there may be sufficient ‘No’ voters last time so exasperated by the thought of continuing bitter referendums that they will buckle and vote ‘Yes’ to end the relentless division and civil war.
I have little doubt that another prolonged battle will be a killer for Scottish business and enterprise. Who would wish to invest or expand here while there is a prospect of a hard border between Scotland (in the EU) and England (outside); of a separate Scottish currency; of submission to ever-closer political and economic integration; pressure to join the Euro and the need, somehow, to make good the billions of pounds of funding lost with the end of the Barnett Formula?
Just by way of refresher on what is at stake: in 2015, some 63 per cent of Scotland’s exports went to the rest of the UK, compared with just 16 per cent to the EU. Scotland’s exports to the rest of the UK increased by 74.1 per cent between 2002 and 2015, whereas exports to the EU increased by only 7.9 per cent. Little wonder business is apprehensive about erecting an economic wall between Scotland and the rest of the UK, in order to remain inside the EU’s single market.
Many Scots may still feel they have a stronger affinity with the EU than with the rest of the UK. But might that still hold true if the EU moves closer towards immigration controls? Or if Marie le Pen wins the presidential election in France? And Gert Wilders prevails in the Netherlands? We might not care on independence to have Donald Trump addressing the Holyrood parliament. But these two would hardly qualify for a warmer welcome.
As it is, Andrzej Duda of Poland’s Law and Justice Party wouldn’t be getting the red carpet, President Recep Erdogan of Turkey would be a no-no and Viktor Orbán of Hungary would be lucky to be offered a Lothian Buses One Day Rover. ’Europe’ is not the fictional Borgen of Holyrood SPAD dreams. Just look at Greece.
And finally, what would make a future referendum result any more acceptable to the SNP if the result is again ‘No?’ The EU has a history of ignoring referendum results or asking countries to vote again if it doesn’t like the outcome. But a ‘no’ this time around would be a killer for the SNP. There also comes a point when the very credibility of referendums is called into question. Resort to them too often, and you run the risk of voter cynicism curdling into contempt.
The First Minister may be cheered to the rafters with a conference declaration on a second vote. Stirring though it may be, do not assume this represents the views of Scotland as a whole, still less that it has to do with ‘respect for democracy’.