Brexit turmoil has dealt ‘damaging blow’ to SNP’s independence hopes, says Willie Rennie

Scots want to “move on” after nearly a decade of constitutional upheaval, with the Brexit turmoil having dealt a “damaging” blow to the case for Scottish independence, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has declared.

Scottish Lib Dem Leader Willie Rennie.

And as Nicola Sturgeon prepares to set out her plans for a second referendum in the coming weeks, Rennie has warned she would be repeating the biggest mistake of her political career if she forged ahead with a fresh vote on leaving the UK.

In an exclusive interview with Scotland on Sunday, Rennie extended an “open hand” to Scots dismayed by the Brexit and independence debates as the Lib Dems prepare to meet for their spring conference in Hamilton this week. Rennie insisted the party could “fill the gap” for those who yearn for a more moderate, progressive approach.

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The Lib Dems have been at the forefront of the drive for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal and as time runs down to the 29 March deadline, he said he believed this may yet emerge as the only solution to the impasse.

The turmoil and paralysis at Westminster has given many Scots a reality check about the dangers of breaking up a centuries-old union, he said.

“Breaking up something that’s been 40 years old has been really tough,” he said. “Breaking up something that’s 300 years old with the even deeper family ties, business ties, economic ties, government ties, the welfare state, the NHS, all the health and safety legislation – it’s going to be so many more times more difficult.

“Surely the lesson of Brexit is not to repeat it with independence.

“I meet a lot of people now who say clearly to me ‘I did vote for independence in 2014 but now…’ – and they suck their teeth and go, ‘Mmm – I’m not sure I want to go through that again’.

“I think that’s incredibly damaging for the SNP and their campaign.”

The First Minister has faced pressure from key SNP figures such as Angus MacNeil and Alex Salmond to press ahead with demands for a second referendum when she sets out her plans in the next few weeks. Scots voted decisively in favour of Remain in the Brexit referendum, but the weight of votes south of the Border swung the outcome in favour of Leave. Many grassroots nationalists feel this “democratic deficit” and the turmoil engulfing Westminster leaves the independence movement with a golden opportunity.

But Rennie added: “I think Nicola – if she pursues this – she’s going to repeat the mistake that she made in the autumn of 2016 where everybody was telling her that you should not push ahead with a call for another referendum, but she put her foot on the accelerator and just a few months later she lost a whole load of her seats at Westminster.

“She’s been struggling to recover ever since. If she wants to repeat that again, she should go ahead. I think she would be in real trouble.”

The First Minister has hinted she may adopt a more medium-term approach if – as expected – the UK government refuses a section 30 order that would allow a second Scottish referendum to take place. The right to stage a referendum may then become the defining issue of the Holyrood election of 2021.

But such an approach may backfire. “It will be a decade worth of constitutional argument by 2021 and people will have to decide then whether they want more of that,” Rennie said.

He said he believed issues such as mental health and difficulties with the education curriculum were the things that really mattered to Scots.

“The government is just so besotted by constitutional upheaval of one kind of another and the UK government is in exactly the same boat. We just have been incapable of focusing on what really matters.

“We’re just utterly driven by two nationalist parties who are hell-bent on pursuing constitutional upheaval at the cost of so much in the country.

“We’re very clear that we need to move on from this. I think the public out there, they just sigh and groan at the endless debate about this stuff, whether it’s on Brexit or independence. So let’s get this solved properly and get back to the big domestic issues that need to be resolved.”

And despite what Rennie refers to as the “extremist” drift in British politics of the Tory Brexiteers, Labour’s hard left and nationalism in Scotland, he said he believed there remained a strong liberal constituency.

“There are a lot of people yearning for that progressive, moderate force in the middle,” he said. “There are people who are attracted by the simplistic solutions round about independence and Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s easy slogans – and they’re perfectly entitled to that. But there’s a huge chunk of people who are yearning for something else. I’m determined to make that happen and meet their needs and I think we’re part of that answer.”