Expert View

Sturgeon at odds with SNP supporters on People’s Vote

by Peter Kellner | 16.08.2018

Peter Kellner is former president of YouGov.

YouGov’s latest survey for the People’s Vote campaign presents Nicola Sturgeon with a challenge. Scotland’s first minister has been reluctant to advocate a public vote once we know the outcome of the negotiations between London and Brussels.

However, she is out of line with the great majority of her own voters. Fully 70% of the SNP’s current supporters want her to campaign for a People’s Vote. Just 11% disagree. Thanks to this poll’s 2,000-voter survey sample – double the size of a normal poll – we can be confident that these figures are about right.

We should not, perhaps, be surprised by the enthusiasm in the party’s ranks for a People’s Vote. If there were a poll today, SNP supporters would vote 83% to 17% for remaining in the EU.

Yet the nervousness of today’s SNP leadership is plain to see. True, Sturgeon has said that a new public vote may become irresistible. Her party’s MPs at Westminster would not try to block a new referendum bill. But she has never endorsed it.

Why? An explanation comes from Alex Neil, a former SNP minister and one of the party’s few supporters of Brexit. “A second EU vote would create a dangerous precedent and would derail any possibility of another independence referendum for many years. And after we win indyref2, it would not be long before unionists demanded an indyref 3 to overturn it.”

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Can the circle be squared, between the views of the SNP’s voters and the fears of the party’s leadership? Probably not – if a public vote on Brexit were seen as simply a rerun of the 2016 referendum. But that is not the People’s Vote argument. It is that circumstances have changed greatly in the past two years.

£350 million more for the NHS? Forget it. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, and also the government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility, say there will be less money post-Brexit for public services, not more. Sharply reduced immigration? No way, unless we want the kind of labour shortage that would force the economy into recession. Take back control? The opposite: more likely the UK will be forced to obey the vast majority of current and future EU rules but lose any say over them.

If anything, this argument helps the SNP. Think back to Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum. One reason it was lost is that many voters, especially women, liked the idea of independence but feared its impact on daily life. The uncertainties of the pro-independence campaign – such as what currency an independent Scotland would use, and what that choice would mean for interest rates – pushed wavering Scots towards a “no” vote.

The lessons from that referendum and the People’s Vote campaign are the same: referendums should be called only when the consequences of constitutional change are clear. The way to avoid the risk of repeated “neverendums” is to ensure clarity in the first place. In 1997, Scotland voted for a fully worked-out devolution settlement. Because Scots could see the detailed plans, nobody said afterwards, “let’s rerun the referendum”.

The case for a People’s Vote on Brexit is that, for the first time, voters would be able to consider the specific consequences of leaving the EU and decide whether or not to go ahead. Were I advising the SNP, I should suggest that they hold a new independence referendum in much the same way: when, unlike in 2014, the specific consequences of independence are clear. Apart from maximising the chance of a “yes” vote, this would also provide a shield against arguments for “indyref3”.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

9 Responses to “Sturgeon at odds with SNP supporters on People’s Vote”

  • The fear that a new referendum will result in the losing side rioting, demanding another vote immediately etc is regularly expressed, and is apparently influencing even someone as cool as Sturgeon.

    In reality, this is probably exaggerated. It is like the Brexiters saying ‘If we lost another referendum, if we were betrayed, we’d smash the place up’. A crude threat, but threats are not always carried out in practice.

    That type of vengeance is pure conjecture. Equally likely is that the Scotland would heave a collective sigh of relief that a sensible way forward had been found And the same if the UK voted to scrap Brexit. which most people know in their hearts is a thoroughly discredited folly. A temporary fad with no lasting substance, it will be a footnote in the history books some day.

  • I fully agree. The referendum was a thoroughly unproductive, and highly divisive, display of conflicting supercharged emotions, precisely because there were so few reliable facts for voters to go on. A Swiss acquaintance of mine was horrified by the casualness with which the referendum was approached by the government, when compared with the exhaustive, detailed information that would have been prepared in advance in Switzerland. The Conservatives, and Cameron in particular, have much to answer for.

    The experience only reinforces the case for the UK drawing up and committing itself to a written constitution that would include a section of the conduct of referendums – and on when it is proper to call them at all. As many will be aware, the German constitution (Grundgesetz) allows referendums only in respect of a very small number of constitutional matters, precisely because of their experience of how referendums were (ab)used by demagogues in the 1930s to reinforce Hitler’s regime. But if we are to have any, there has to be good reason not to rely on Parliament alone, and, if that is so, the sort of procedures that the Swiss have developed must be obligatory.

  • I am confused about the people’s vote, being from Europe and all!
    As I understand it, you are looking to have an exit agreement including a non-binding(?) framework agreement for the future as well as a transition deal when you leave next spring. What is the point of voting for a non-binding transition deal? It seems to be yet again an exercise of the people of the U.K. talking to themselves.
    I do understand that some of you United Kingdomer want to vote against the exit agreement in order to keep the 39 billion pounds and provoke a no deal for next spring.
    Maybe some of you want to vote for staying in the EU but that is not offered by the EU. There is only a hope that the vote has meaning through a last minute unforeseen cancellation of the article 50 notification.
    And the idea to vote for a non-binding framework agreement appears to be a little meaningless.
    To me it seems like ‘Tout a l’heure UK’. Too bad.
    Maybe someone can explain the people’s vote to an outsider European or point me to an explanation. I enjoy reading infacts.org but still don’t understand what is going on.

  • not wanting to create a precedent where one popular vote is overturned so soon after by another vote might be a reason for Sturgeon’s carefulness on this issue.
    but I don’t think that’s the main rationale

    for Sturgeon (and all SNP supporters), Indyref 2 is the real prize, not whether they remain part of the EU/Single market.

    and the Tory Brexiters are making a shit show of the whole process.
    for the same reason that Corbyn is so “weak” against Theresa May’s government, Sturgeon is keen to let the whole fiasco go as far and as destructively as she can before getting blamed herself : that will ensure that there is such a groundswell of anger at the Tories/Little England/Westminster that she can impose an Indyref 2 on whoever succeed May and win the vote decisively.

    whether that plan will work is anyone’s guess.
    whether it’s wise or democratic is irrelevant. it’s just plain politics.

  • Gregor, the idea behind the People’s Vote campaign is very simple. It is that the project to leave the EU should be subjected to the same level of scrutiny and control that would be applied by any sane organisation, in any other field, to any decision of even a fraction of this magnitude.

    It’s standard management practice that any major change in position should be subjected to two decision points, especially when the proposed change is not clearly defined. The first decision point comes when the change is proposed, to see whether the concept is appealing enough to justify spending the time and money on working out the details of what is achievable. The second comes once those details are known, when a fully defined change proposal can be compared against the known situation and a choice made of whether the achievable proposal lives up to the promise.

    The Brexit situation could easily be a textbook example of how this should work. A concept is proposed – to leave the EU. At the point of the 2016 referendum, there was no more detail. Those who voted against the status quo did so with all sorts of visions of what it would mean, many of which were incompatible with each other or simply not possible, but that’s perfectly reasonable at a concept-level decision point. We now have a mandate to sit down with the EU and negotiate an ‘out’ scenario, based on what meets the needs of both sides of the deal*. That scenario will undoubtedly be completely against the intentions of many who supported ‘not the status quo’ at the concept stage, but equally it may win over some who thought the status quo good enough at the time. So it needs an implementation decision point: we should put the final, achievable ‘out’ scenario against the known ‘in’ scenario, and check whether the reality is still “the will of the people”.
    Of course, as we know, the Government instead insisted on treating the initial concept decision point as if it were the final implementation decision point. As a result, it has spent the past two years simultaneously trying to figure out what it wants, and trying as far as possible to avoid saying anything definite about what that might be. Because if it is once forced to define ‘Brexit’ it will be forced to admit that it is in fact an amalgamation of myriad dreams and fantasies, and run the risk that the specific one it chooses will be incompatible with enough of the others to break the illusion.

    *In an ideal world, we’d have parallel negotiations running to see whether we could make the ‘in’ deal more palatable and address the issues that were causing concern. But in the real world, the number of diplomats is limited!

  • To Richard, above
    The 2016 referendum was indeed approached with casualness by the Government and by David Cameron. His nonchalance and impulsiveness was reminiscent of many of the Brexiters including Johnson. It is like the captain of a ship, exasperated by constant complaints about the food, poor service etc, exclaiming “Do you want to continue on board this vessel or not? Annoyed, they say not. So they all have to jump overboard.

  • Why should Scotland be pro active in campaigning for another vote on Brexit, we already voted by a big majority to Remain and would do so again in even greater numbers no doubt BUT our opinion would still be completely disregarded again.
    It’s not Nicola Sturgeons job to whip Labour and lib dem MPs into doing their jobs and protecting the jobs and living standards of their constituants. Its also not her job to get this tory government to see sense, the Scottish government produced a report supported by all but one of the parties in Hollyrood and voted on, this was sent to the UK government two years ago so discussions could be held. I believe they still havnt had a response.
    Why waste any more time on this farce, we have a better plan to avoid EU withdrawal.

  • May I congratulate Alex Scott on his contribution and the clear, calm and intelligent justification he provides for the need for a further say on our EU future. If he can go on to lay out the framework for how that can be managed and specify the question/questions to be asked in similarity lucid style, I will be proposing him for high office.

  • Its not Scotlands job to help Brexit England out of its predicament.
    Scotlands previous clear support of EU membership is not in question.
    What is in question is, If Leave wins again, will Scotlands remain vote be ignored again? This is the issue and it is an issue
    If so, what is the point, we get what England votes for us.

    Personally i will vote Remain again if i absolutely have to, but its not and should not be required.