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30 November 2016updated 30 Jul 2021 6:48am

Beware SNP rhetoric on St Andrew’s Day

The First Minister is more cautious than she lets on.

By James millar

Ahead of St Andrew’s Day, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been busy stirring the #indyref pot.

In a speech in Ireland she felt the need to reiterate that calling another vote on Scotland separating from the UK is an option in light of Brexit.

There was always going to be some indyref excitement on St Andrew’s Day. It has become a thing in Scottish politics, and the SNP were bound to pull some sort of stunt ensuring independence will be on the front pages stamped November 30.

The date first became a thing ten years ago when a law was passed making it a bank holiday. Although the bill was passed in the dog days of the last Labour administration in Edinburgh, it was piloted by Dennis Canavan, a former Labour MP turned independent MSP who would go on to chair the Yes campaign in 2014.

Labour may have backed the bill for fear of being seen as un-Scottish. Little did they realise it was just the first ripple of a nationalist tsunami that would overwhelm the party. Many more Scots were following Canavan’s political path away from Labour.

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And yet it took longer for them to learn that tarting the party up in tartan wasn’t going to wash.

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When Gordon Brown mounted his last-minute rescue of the No campaign in 2014 with the Vow (though most sensible analysis now accepts the campaign didn’t need rescuing), the timetable he set out established that Lord Smith’s commission on further devolution must be complete by November 30.

That deadline was both patronising and pointless. It piled the pressure on the politicians of the commission to come up with something by St Andrew’s Day without giving them the time to think through details and, importantly, consequences.

Brown had made the same mistake that Jack McConnell did in passing the St Andrew’s Day holiday bill. The electorate see through such tokenistic jingoism. Both times in the following elections they backed the nationalists in droves.

The question is whether Sturgeon is now making the same mistakes.

There is little evidence that the SNP would win an independence referendum right now. Sturgeon knows this. 

Many of her supporters, including among her elected representatives in Westminster and Holyrood, hold a different opinion. They are champing at the bit for another shot. Geeing them up for the sake of some St Andrew’s Day headlines could be a mistake.

The pro-referendum camp argue that Brexit Britain is an uncertain place, and so fundamentally alters the dynamics of an indyref campaign. If 2014 was a battle between the uncertainty of independence and the calm continuity of remaining in the UK, the latter position no longer exists. Instead, the next battle will be between equally fuzzy futures.

But Sturgeon and her more cautious fellow travellers don’t want a battle of equals, they want a campaign loaded in their favour. Hence the First Minister has to wait and see what a Brexit deal might look like before deciding whether to stick or twist.

This is not least because the new immigration landscape will be vital to the outcome of “indyref 2”.

If the UK pursues a hard Brexit complete with tough immigration controls, independence will be a way to stay in the EU. Some see this as an easy sell for Sturgeon. A bespoke membership deal would likely to be reached.

But, as Downing Street is learning, freedom of movement is sacrosanct to the EU. Scotland would have to have open borders. And there’s no evidence that Scots are that much keener on immigration than their friends and relations south of the border.

The thinkers and strategists in all parties tooling up for indyref 2 know that immigration will be at the core. 

That’s a particular problem for Scottish Labour. The party stands ready to let the Tories do the dirty work of trash talking immigration in the service of returning another No vote. But such a stance would leave Labour further sidelined from the Scottish political conversation. 

That’s why Gordon Brown – him again – is meddling once more. His loyal lieutenants like Douglas Alexander and Yvette Cooper are out making the case for a devolved immigration system.

A system that is neither one thing nor the other might seem a good solution but it’ll get trampled in the constitutional dust up of an independence campaign.

Brown might be better sticking to what he knows best – money. The other issue already identified as a game changer at the next indyref is pensions.

It was the old who won it for No last time. That’s why the SNP have assigned their very best at Westminster – Mhairi Black and Ian Blackford – to take up the Waspi campaign

But for all their attempts to prove trustworthy on the issue, one fact remains. It’s the Treasury in Whitehall that deposits pensions into people’s bank accounts. And once people see that money going into their account every week, or if they are nearing the age that it’s going to start, they are very unlikely to back any proposition that risks it.

Sturgeon knows pensions and borders are two of the biggest barriers she must overcome if she’s to deliver the dream of independence. There’ll be a few St Andrew’s Days yet before she gets there.