Euan McColm: Sturgeon should take heed of former SNP hothead

Alex Neil and his friends came to see the wisdom of the gradualist approach. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
Alex Neil and his friends came to see the wisdom of the gradualist approach. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
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In the SNP’s dark but not so distant past, the party was split over the way in which its objective of Scottish independence might be achieved.

On one side were the gradualists, those nationalists who believed the best strategy was a slow and steady one. They were willing to make pragmatic concessions as they fought their constitutional battle.

On the other side were the fundamentalists – the fundies – who demanded “independence – nothing less”. They believed that those who were willing to make pragmatic concessions were sell-outs.

Back in the early Noughties when John Swinney – a gradualist – was leader of the SNP, his life was made hellishly difficult by fundies who believed his approach was wrong. Because this is a code we can all understand, let’s call those who had it in for Swinney “friends of Alex Neil”.

Neil had stood against Swinney for the SNP leadership when Alex Salmond quit, for the first time, in 2000. Neil’s “friends” did not take his defeat well. If a lazy reporter was short of a story, then a quick chat with one of these “friends” would result in a yarn of the “SNP in crisis” variety.

But the SNP’s electoral success focused the minds of these “friends of Alex Neil” and, after the party’s 2007 Holyrood victory, they got with the programme. By 2009, Neil was a junior minister and, after the party’s 2011 landslide, he was promoted to the cabinet.

By this time, “friends of Alex Neil” had nothing but good things to say about the gradualists’ strategy that had taken the SNP from being on the fringes of Scottish politics to becoming the dominant force.

I recap the political transformation of Neil because he has, having stepped down from the cabinet earlier this year, dipped a toe in the waters of constitutional debate. And, this time, he’s urging caution.

Since the UK voted, on 23 June, to leave the European Union, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been rallying her troops with the tantalising prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence. Her narrative – that Scotland is to be dragged out of Europe against its will and that she will do all she can to prevent such an eventuality – has been lapped up and regurgitated by those who remain committed to the break-up of the UK. But there are flaws with the Sturgeon story.

The simple, inescapable fact is that Scotland, as part of the UK, cannot expect to remain a member of the EU. Nor is it the case that, even if Sturgeon called and won a snap second referendum, an independent Scotland would automatically retain its membership. As a new state, Scotland would require to apply for membership. This would, I expect, be granted, but it would not be a straightforward process. Scotland would, to cite one example of a measure which citizens might find troubling, have to sign up to the single currency.

Last week, Neil pointed to another hurdle on the route which Sturgeon would have us believe she can take. He warned that, if Scotland was to become a full member of the EU, it would be very difficult to create an open border with the rest of the UK. This, he suggested, would make it hard for the Yes campaign to win a majority in a second referendum.

The former health secretary also argued that the notion that the UK’s vote for Brexit would hasten the achievement of a majority for Scottish independence was wrong.

Neil does not, I believe, wish to derail the campaign for Scottish independence. Instead, his intervention is a necessary corrective to a post-EU referendum strategy that makes little sense.

The SNP spent a year arguing that if the UK voted for Brexit but that a majority of Scots didn’t, this would create the conditions where a second referendum would be desirable. But the thing is that the nationalists advanced this argument while believing that the UK would vote to remain. This was a hypothetical scenario which the First Minister used, quite skilfully, to keep her party members happy and to give some momentum to a Yes movement that had lost heavily in 2014.

When the EU referendum result resembled the picture Sturgeon had painted, she had to act. This took the form of her visiting various EU officials and politicians to hold utterly pointless discussions. No number of photos of her shaking the hands of Belgian gentlemen could change the fact that Scotland, as part of the UK, is on its way out of the EU.

Neil argued that to bring forward a second independence referendum any time soon would be premature and unnecessarily risky. He was correct to do so.

Before the EU referendum result, Sturgeon had made quite clear that she was minded only to call a second referendum when polls showed, over a lengthy period, support for independence at 60 per cent or more.

This plan – creating the likelihood of a Yes victory even if a number of voters get cold feet – is a reasonable one.

It may be, of course, that polls never get to the point where Yes has the support of three-fifths of Scots. But working towards that objective remains the wisest plan.

Neil said last week that the SNP should be looking at alternative scenarios for “the independence offer” and that these should be defined within the known consequences of Brexit.

Doubtless, more hotheaded nationalists will have been irked by this call for calm from a man who once led the fundies, but he makes sense.

The Brexit vote has not created a majority for Scottish independence. Polls show that the pro-UK majority prevails.

Arch-gradualist Sturgeon has begun to sound awfully like an “independence – nothing less” fundie in the past few weeks. Surely, as she looks at the polls, she must realise that her strategy simply isn’t working with the cautious Scots voters she must win over?

Neil, once the voice of SNP fundamentalism, is speaking the language of gradualism that has served the SNP so well. Sturgeon should listen.