Guest article: Same again Scotland?
Events in Scotland have such potential to alter the whole framework of the Brexit debate in these islands that Brexit Border Blog is making an exception to our strict ‘non-political’ rule to get an update from an Edinburgh perspective.
The opinion polls don’t look too auspicious, so it was bold of Nicola Sturgeon to call for a new referendum on Scottish independence. Will the campaign and the result be any different this time around? Grassroots Yes activist Tam McTurk suggests some grounds for cautious optimism.
ScotRef will be a very different event. The pro-independence forces start from a higher support base, the previous referendum has normalised the concept of independence and the political and economic situation has changed at local, national and international level. Just calling for it wrong-footed the hapless May government but little did we expect her to come out with both guns blazing at her own feet only a couple of days later and proclaim “it’s not the right time” for Scotland to vote.
Last time round, the official campaign (Better Together) dubbed itself Project Fear. They astutely deployed fear and uncertainty to target specific socio-economic groups and shore up support.
EU residents were told that an independent Scotland would be thrown out of the EU. The middle classes were told that the pound in their pockets would be worth less. Scottish Labour led the campaign, hinted that pensions were at risk and that the ‘broad shoulders’ of Britain were needed for social protection. Subtle tugs on the heart strings of the many English-born residents played on fears of estrangement and loss. Less subtle messages to them said that a hard border would be inevitable, no matter what the situation was in Ireland.
It was presented as battle of two tribes but Better Together, significantly better funded and with the entire mainstream print media bar one Sunday newspaper, on side, had nowhere near the number of grassroots groups and supporters of the Yes campaign. They also avoided public debate as far as possible unless at tightly controlled media events with invited guests lapping up negative statements about independence rather than positive ones about the status quo. Countless events were cancelled because the hosts wanted both sides and Better Together wouldn’t or couldn’t field anyone.
Despite all this, Yes closed in on them in the opinion pools until finally, following an astonishing show of condescension, when Labour shipped its MPs up to Glasgow en masse to highlight to us the error of our ways, the three main Unionist parties made The Vow to the Scottish people – more powers, apparently the closest thing to federalism possible within the UK. Scotland, we were told, was to “lead, not leave” the UK, to be an equal partner.
The very morning after the No vote, David Cameron announced English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). He thought the Scottish issue was dead and buried. He set up the Smith Commission on which the Labour, Tory and Lib Dem members fought tooth and nail to limit the transfer of further powers to Scotland. It was all a far cry from the heady/panicky days of The Vow only weeks earlier.
The opinion polls suggest that neither side can look forward to a landslide victory, so why now? It’s a brave step by Nicola Sturgeon, but legitimate in the light of the SNP manifesto. Many Yes supporters fear that our country will be dragged further down the £1.7 trillion UK debt hole into an Empire 2.0 that will be reliant on trade deals with the Trump administration unless we get a move on.
ScotRef isn’t just about Brexit though. It is about nationhood and democracy. May has ignored everything the Edinburgh Government has said about Brexit. This is about the people of Scotland deciding on our relationships with Europe and the world, not having them decided for us by our numerically larger neighbour.
Just this week, the Brexit minister David Davies admitted not having done any sums on the economic impact, Chancellor Hammond did a massive u-turn and May was unable to even look gracious – never mind answer properly – when asked questions about the UK economy by SNP MPs. Then came the Westminster fatwah. Oh yes, and various police forces are investigating the Tory party for electoral fraud.
All of this matters because this time around it will be the pro-independence side versus the Tories and ultra-right. The Labour Party and Lib Dems have alienated themselves from their former heartlands and are too enfeebled to lead the pro-Union campaign. A divided Tory party will find it hard to fight a united Yes movement with little help from these former partners.
The big question is What will the No side actually do? Ratchet up the fear and uncertainty? Will that work a second time? Attempt to compromise and offer greater devolution so soon after not delivering on The Vow? Or will they stick to their current line of – “this is not the time”?
And what about the demographic groups targeted last time? The No side will have difficulty gaining votes from EU residents, the Labour Party is in a much weaker position from which to persuade the working class and the elderly to reject independence and many of the people born south of the border, but resident in Scotland, no longer think that the direction the UK is taking reflects the country they remember and wanted to remain in a Union with back in 2014.
Numerically, analyses of the previous vote suggest that even quite small percentage changes in these three demographic groups would be enough – on their own – to sway the result to at least the kind of level the Tory government is calling decisive enough to justify a hard Brexit.
It may be too early to call the result but it is most definitely game on.