Nicola Sturgeon believes that preparing the legislation for a second referendum on Scottish independence might be a way of calling Theresa May’s bluff on Brexit and Scotland’s place in the single market. If she tries, the bluff-calling might just be on the other foot.
In her Today programme interview this morning Sturgeon did her best braveheart routine, but the language was noticeably different. She talked about taking ‘control’ and questioned whether the future of the United Kingdom was the constant and status quo that it represented in 2014. Straight out of the Vote Leave script the civic nationalist checked off all the boxes in the English nationalist playbook. Chief Brexiteer Matthew Elliott has since the 23 June poll explained how Vote Leave had to make continuing in the European Union as risking as leaving. It worked. Brexit offers the same possibility for her second referendum – so Sturgeon hopes.
But this could really blow up in her face. Scottish politics has become very different in two short years. The Tories, not Labour, are the official opposition and the United Kingdom Independence party have one of Scotland’s six members of the European parliament. Under those circumstances the Tories and Ukip will show that Scotland is not the leftwing utopia that nationalists and the hard left believe it to be.
Sturgeon may have started adopting the language of Vote Leave, but, come a new referendum campaign, she will come up against the full force of a Vote Leave-style campaign. They will hammer home the issue of controlling our borders and immigration – just the issues that won the Brexit vote, and which convinced one million Scots to vote to quit the European Union.
The pro-union campaign – now led by Brexiteers – will ape the cultural war waged by Yes Scotland at the last referendum. But fears about immigration are as high in Scotland as England – they are just less salient because of previous constitutional issues. The referendum will not be fought on Europe or access to the single market. A second independence vote will reveal that the faultlines are now on the right’s terms, not the Scottish National party’s. Equally the traditional role for Scottish Labour to run a ‘jobs’ campaign will be confused and contorted as unions, business and economic opinion try to second-guess the stability of the UK market and the EU’s single market. This will mean that, because of the great lack of clarity over ‘free movement’ and the fears it conjures up, ‘control our borders’ will win out. And this is all before we get on to the question of Scotland taking on the euro, joining Schengen and establishing a hard border with England.
So far Scotland seems immune from the rise in racism following the Brexit vote. This will not be the case after a second referendum on these terms. I would hazard a guess that if Sturgeon misjudges this she could break the SNP’s hold on politics north of the border and cause a breakout of anti-immigrant feeling like we are now witnessing in England. While I would welcome the former, the latter must be avoided at all costs.
This tectonic shifts over the past year mean that, in the end, it will be May who is doing the bluff-calling.
Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell
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