The real reason the SNP won’t back a referendum on the Brexit deal

The mysterious case of an anti-Brexit party’s aversion to a People’s Vote. 

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When it comes to second referendums, the SNP are ahead of the pack, having been debating whether to have one for exactly four years – ie from the day after they lost the 2014 independence vote.

Yet they are strangely reticent about a second referendum on Brexit.

The Lib Dems reckon they’ve got the Nats' number on this and have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy at their conference banging on about the SNP.

At least in part that’s driven by bitterness that the Nats didn’t just squeeze the Lib Dems into third place in 2015, but booted them there and show no sign of relinquishing their role and the parliamentary perks that come with it. (Vince Cable doesn’t even show up to Prime Minister’s Questions that often these days. He’d rather spend time with his erotic spasms than stew on the backbenches listening to another long winded contribution by Ian Blackford while feeling it ought to be him up there asking questions  making jokes about Mr Bean.)

But it’s also driven by the feeling that the Lib Dems have got one on the SNP here.

It’s no surprise that Jo Swinson, who won her East Dunbartonshire seat back last year after a bitter battle with the Nats, raised the issue in her speech. And of course the Scottish Lib Dems leader, Willie Rennie, had to give the Scottish government a kick in his Neil Sedaka-inspired speech about how “breaking up is hard to to do”.

But most surprising was the contribution of Tom Brake, the MP for Carshalton and Wallington. He accused the SNP of “rampant hypocrisy” and said their stance is “bizarre”. He added, “Like Brexiters, they are putting their nationalist agenda ahead of the interests of the country.”

Of course, given it’s not entirely clear what Tom Brake is for, it may just be that he had nothing else to say so he thought he’d give the SNP a kick. But it’s more than that, it’s a very deliberate Lib Dem ploy.

For the SNP position is, on the face of it, genuinely puzzling. If they are concerned that Brexit will damage Scotland then surely they ought to do all they can to stop it. And that means backing a second referendum (even if, as seems likely, Brexit would triumph again, a re-run offers a chance).

But they show no interest in the People’s Vote campaign. One party source told me they weren’t engaging with it because “it ain’t going to happen”. But Scottish independence only became a realistic prospect after 2011 and that didn’t stop the party backing it for the decades before that. If the SNP story proves anything, it’s that apparently outlandish causes can have their day. See also: Brexit.

And that raises suspicion that they think Brexit will be bad for Scotland, and therefore good for independence.

If that were true, then Tom Brake’s charge would hold water and the Nats could be accused of being a bit traitor-y.

But it’s not. Such a strategy would be both high-risk and stupid. Political and economic uncertainty rarely fuels successful campaigns for more uncertainty. And the SNP, 11 years in government and counting, and still steamrolling through every election that’s put in front of them, are not stupid.

The reason they don’t fancy a second referendum is because they don’t want to set a precedent.

The SNP may want a second referendum on independence. They don’t want a second referendum after independence.

It’s dancing on the head of a pin, but the Nat rule is broadly that if a referendum endorses the status quo, it’s OK to have countless re-runs until you get a majority for change. But if a referendum endorses change, leaving a larger union, then that result is final.

The world moves ever faster. Indyref2 became a hashtag the day after the last poll. #indyref3 is already a thing, albeit a hashtag largely dreamt up by unionists suggesting some of them are already preparing to lose the next vote on separation.

And yet the SNP would be foolish to dismiss the People’s Vote out of hand. Which is why Nicola Sturgeon hasn’t quite gone that far yet.

It may yet offer a route to independence.

On current polling, it’s unlikely a second EU referendum would yield a different result to the first and Brexit would go ahead in some form.

That then would give the SNP a clear proposal to put to Scots in a second independence vote. The implications of staying in the UK would be clear, and largely at odds with the will of the majority of voters in Scotland.

Calls for a People’s Vote are driven by claims that circumstances have changed. Just as the Nat narrative had it that Brexit had changed the constitutional circumstances – at least until the last general election that suggested Nicola Sturgeon had moved too soon in making that case.

The key to kyboshing demands for a second referendum is to set out clearly what happens in the event of either outcome succeeding.

There’s never been a serious demand to undo the devolution referendum of 1997 or the AV referendum of 2011 because the implications were worked through.

A second Brexit referendum that returned the same result could actually make indyref2 more clear cut: Brexit Britain or separate Scotland.

The Lib Dems are proud that they’ve taken time to attack the Nats at their conference thinking they’ve got the SNP over a barrel.

It may be that the Lib Dems have come up with a cunning strategy that doesn’t deliver the outcome they expected or desired. The sort of thing you might associate with Mr Bean.

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is the author of The Gender Agenda and Dads Don’t Babysit