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31 January 2020

How the SNP must change if Brexit Day is to be followed by Independence Day

Nicola Sturgeon must focus on governing and show that “patience and respect” are more than just words.

By Chris Deerin

Brexit day in Scotland. Not many Union Jacks being waved and few celebratory corks being popped – dark, damp January is a fitting setting for a day the overwhelming majority of Scots did not want to see. The newspaper front pages largely express sentiment along the lines of “goodbye for now, but not forever”. It stuck in the craw to see a bagpiper leading Farage’s Brexit Party out of Brussels, alongside Ann Widdecombe and smirking pro-Brexit Scottish MEP Brian Monteith in his full kilted regalia. What did we do to deserve that?

Another thought: it is a sad day for many of us, but bears no comparison to the emotions that would surround the battle and result of another independence referendum. The EU is not the UK. The passions that accompany Scotland’s debate over Brexit pale in comparison to those around its possible departure from Britain.

One decision inevitably has consequences for the other, however. A poll this week put support for independence at 51 per cent, the Yes side’s first lead in a YouGov poll since 2015. The reason for this shift is clear: Brexit. One in five Scots who voted Remain in 2016 and No in 2014 have now moved to support independence. A smaller realignment has occurred the other way, but the numbers are playing out to the SNP’s benefit.

A caveat: most oppose holding a second independence referendum this year – never a goer, really, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s rhetoric – or even in the next couple of years. Sometime in the next five years seems to be the preferred public option.

This was the context in which Nicola Sturgeon set out her latest thinking this morning on the future of Scotland and the campaign for independence, in a speech in Edinburgh. The First Minister pushed back against growing pressure in her party for something like guerrilla action in the face of Westminster’s refusal to allow another referendum. Some have called for an illegal “wildcat” referendum to be held.

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Sturgeon’s having none of it. “For me to pretend that there are shortcuts or clever wheezes that can magically overcome the obstacles we face would be to do the independence cause a disservice,” she said. A referendum must be “legal and legitimate. That is a simple fact… its legality must be beyond doubt. Otherwise, the outcome, even if successful, would not be recognised by other countries.”

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This will not please those who are straining in the traps, raring to go, and so Sturgeon produced other wheezes to show her party isn’t resting on its laurels. The SNP will set up a new Constitutional Convention, and invite Scottish elected members of all parties to participate. Sturgeon’s administration will produce a series of “New Scotland” papers setting out how a transition to independence can be achieved, and what might be done with it. She intends to double the SNP campaign budget to support new independence materials, local newspaper adverts and a campaign film focused on undecided voters.

This may bring cheer from her supporters – from unionist voters, there will only be a groan at the idea that state energy over the next few years will be targeted at independence rather than reforming public services and the economy. Getting the balance right will matter.

Earlier this week I wrote as a 2014 No voter who is now, post-Brexit, open-minded about the prospect of Scottish independence. What I wanted to hear from the SNP, and have not been hearing, is that they understand my position: I don’t want a referendum this year and would vote No again if one were held. I want to see how the early years of Brexit play out. I want to see whether Labour can be saved from the garbage heap. I want to see what kind of prime minister Boris Johnson will be. And I want to see the nationalists grapple more effectively with the difficulties facing Scotland’s public services. Those outcomes will dictate my decision.

I received the now predictable abuse – cybernats accusing me of stupidity (and worse) for not already being a full-throated supporter of independence. In truth, according to the YouGov poll, I sit in the broad mainstream of Scottish public opinion.

It remains important to listen, rather than hit out at those with whom you disagree. Sturgeon gets this, in her speech acknowledging that “there are many people out there who voted No in 2014 now thinking about independence differently in light of Brexit. We must show that we understand the complexity of the issues they grapple with and that for many emotions will be mixed.” The case for independence must be made “with patience and respect”. We shall see, and we shall see whether public opinion can bear many more years of constitutional squabbling and politicking when the problems in Scotland’s schools and hospitals appear to be piling up.

If Brexit Day is ever to be followed by Independence Day, Sturgeon will have to control her masses, get on with governing, and show that “patience and respect” are more than just words. Independence supporters should know this: the rest of us will not be shouted or bullied out of the UK.