For once Scottish politics looks almost boring when compared to the tumultuous events of the last six weeks in the United Kingdom. A vote to leave the European Union, a series of jaw-dropping announcements on the Conservative leadership, a lightening quick change of prime minister and now a Labour leadership contest in which people who have campaigned for Labour for decades are being called Tories. So it is easy to overlook what is going on in Scotland. But we do that at our peril. Because if there is one lesson from recent events, it is never take anything for granted in politics.
It was inevitable that there would be a push for a second referendum in the circumstances in which we now find ourselves. A majority of Scots voted to stay in the EU, in contrast with a majority of the UK as a whole voting to leave. However I have no truck with nationalists who say Scotland is being dragged out against ‘our will’. Scots voted very clearly that when it came to foreign policy ‘our’ should mean the UK, not Scotland on its own. Nor do I have any truck with those who argue that swathes of people voted ‘No’ to stay in the EU. There cannot be many people who knocked on more doors than me during the referendum campaign and I am struggling to think of one person who told me their vote was about the EU. In any case, if you are concerned about the UK being dragged out of our biggest market (which I am) there is no sense in a response in which Scotland is dragged out of our biggest market (the rest of the UK).
It is not surprising however that the Scottish National party are pushing for a second referendum. Independence is their raison d’etre, as evidenced by their oversight of the managed decline of Scotland’s public services, and their willingness to pass on ‘cuts plus’ to local authorities by protecting their vote winning populist policies at the expense of putting money where it’s needed most.
But the SNP has to be sure of winning a second referendum. Because while they might get away with disrespecting the clear decision Scots made less than two years ago, and holding another vote, no-one thinks they could hold a third in quick succession. And, despite strong statements by Nicola Sturgeon in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, it does feel like they have reverted to playing the long game. The much trumpeted ‘summer of independence’ seems to have slid off the agenda. If you have not noticed Wishart, Hosie or Robertson appearing at a town hall near you, that is because they are not.
But perhaps this strategy of loud noises with not much action is not surprising when you consider the double job the SNP leadership is trying to do. On the one hand they have to keep their supporters happy. All those new members who joined pre and post-independence referendum, for whom the only acceptable answer to ‘how can we fix this problem’? is now, always, ‘freedom!’, need to maintain faith in the party to deliver independence. And the candidates in their deputy leadership election will be courting members’ votes so expect more loud proclamations in the months ahead.
But Nicola and her team have to reconcile this with the polling and with the hard reality. The latest poll by YouGov yet again shows a majority support for staying in the UK. And when asked whether they would opt to stay in the UK outside of the EU or leave the UK and stay in the EU, most people chose the former.
The major obstacle in the road to independence remains the currency question. It was a huge feature of the first independence referendum. And without a clear answer, I do not see those polls changing any time soon.
So the first minister would do well to crack on with the job she has, rather than thinking about the job she wants. Scots may have been swept up in the buzz around the SNP, but they won’t be fobbed off forever and if the Scottish government do not start turning round Scotland’s failing education system and at breaking point National Health Service, she may find those rock star levels of support she has become used to starting to slip.
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