Expert View

SNP must lead Scottish call for People’s Vote

by Kirsty Hughes | 15.06.2018

The SNP MPs who walked out of the House of Commons on Wednesday, were not just demonstrating their opposition to Westminster’s “power grab” of devolved powers in the EU Withdrawal bill. They were also expressing a wider anger at the disregard for Scotland across the Brexit process. The walk-out has proved popular in Scotland – both in media commentary and in several thousand new members signing up to the SNP.

Scotland voted 62% for Remain in 2016. Yet the impact of Brexit on the devolution settlement for the constituent parts of the UK has barely registered in the debates – especially considering two of the four, Scotland and Northern Ireland, didn’t vote for it.

The Scottish government, led by Nicola Sturgeon, has pushed for a “supersoft” Brexit as the least worst option for the UK, staying in both the customs union and single market. But consultation of Scotland on the future UK-EU relationship, including on the postponed White Paper, has been minimal.

Yet there is frustration in several quarters in Scotland, including some in the SNP, that Nicola Sturgeon has not been bolder on Brexit – and a campaign to keep Scotland in the EU has been launched recently. While Sturgeon pays lip-service to staying in the EU, she emphasises much more her “soft” Brexit goal.

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In part, this reflects a nervousness about those independence supporters who voted for Leave – about a quarter to a third of SNP voters. There is also a lack of confidence about how the SNP can influence the UK debate, despite being the third party at Westminster. There is a view that it’s not for the Scottish government or SNP to tell the English how to vote – not wanting to set any precedents when and if there’s another independence vote.

Yet the walk-out by SNP MPs this week suggests bold moves can have an impact.

Nicola Sturgeon has, so far, been reluctant to endorse a people’s vote. She has moved only slightly, from suggesting this January that another vote “may become irresistible” to stating in May: “It’s not the SNP that’s going to be a block if there is second referendum on the EU issue.”

Blaming Labour, while sitting on your hands over contesting Brexit and demanding a people’s vote, is neither bold nor a leadership stance. Some suggest this is “strategic passivity” – waiting for Brexit to get worse as Tory infighting deepens. But others argue it’s time Sturgeon spoke out more strongly against Brexit.

In recent months, the independence debate in Scotland has become more energised. That may lead Sturgeon to carry on sitting it out on Brexit, with the exception of the devolution “power grab” issue. But Brexit is seriously damaging to Scotland – independent or not. What’s more, the prospect of a hard border between Scotland and England brought by a hard Brexit (if an independent Scotland was in the EU or EEA) will not make winning an independence vote easier.

A strong stance from the SNP on a people’s vote does not yet look likely. If Labour found its nerve on this, the SNP, it seems, would follow not lead. The big challenge on Brexit for the Scottish government is whether it can find its nerve on Brexit, as its MPs at Westminster have done, and lead not follow.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe