I’ve had a lot of overly worried YES supporters asking me a lot of questions recently: Why are the opinion polls refusing to budge for YES despite some people moving over from the NO side? Why have Nicola’s personal approval ratings fallen? Could the Tories even be making a long term comeback in Scotland? Could we lose a majority of pro-indy MSPs in the 2021 Holyrood elections?
First of all I try to reassure my friends about the Scottish Tories. Their minor surge is due to diehard British identity ex Labour voters swinging to them in desperation - but that has its limits. It's not ruled out that the SNP/pro-indy ‘coalition’ could lose their majority in 2021, of course, but I wouldn't advise anyone to bet the house on it.
The declining popularity ratings for Nicola Sturgeon, in comparison to the heights she hit in 2014 and 2015, probably reflect the root problem. I would argue that the SNP leadership and their supporting chatterati have been operating in a bit of a middle class, middle left EUphile bubble, and there's been a disconnect between what they see as the reality of the overall political situation, and that situation as it really is on the ground.
Anyone working in a predominantly working class environment or living in a working class housing scheme who actually speaks to people about indy knows the score. There’s a layer of working class YES voters who’ve cooled towards the SNP, Sturgeon and Indy because the overwhelming message coming at them through mainstream media is that indyref 2 is now principally a way of staying in the EU, an elitist, undemocratic big business institution unaccountably beloved of some progressive elites but distrusted by many ordinary people.
Sometimes, in politics, as in football, the result doesn't really reflect the underlying realities of the game. I have said in the past that those who believe/believed that the 62%-38% June Brexit result in Scotland reflected some kind of 'settled will' of the Scottish people in favour of all things EU, and that that was the basis for successful second indyref strategy, were deluding themselves.
Because considerable numbers who voted Remain were voting AGAINST Farage, UKIP, the Tories and Little Englander xenophobia rather than FOR the EU.
Others voted Remain principally because Nicola had said it could be a route to a second indyref – in other words their primary concern was, in reality, Scottish independence as soon as possible, rather than any strong commitment to the EU.
Most polls and the recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey confirm this picture, with Professor John Curtice – who I think has no axe to grind either way – saying that there remained considerable EU scepticism amongst the Scottish population and that the SNP leadership might be well advised ‘to consider offering a (Scottish) EU referendum’ post independence’.
The last lines of defence against this appear to be a) we’ve already had a referendum in Scotland and Remain won, and b) the EU is the raison d’etre for indyref 2, and having a second referendum on the EU would undermine that.
Both of these arguments are logically false, politically suspect and, in the longer term, palpably unsustainable.
For a) - aside from the arguments already noted - the question people answered last June was ‘Should the UK be a member of the EU?”
The question ‘Should an independent Scotland be part of the EU?’ has never been put.
Arguments for the UK remaining in the EU – such as protecting immigrants or protecting workers’ rights from Tory Westminster – would not necessarily apply in an independent Scotland, which could legislate for such protections itself.
And finally, circumstances may be very different by the time Scotland becomes independent and the UK is outside of the EU – that’s three to four years away even on Nicola’s own timetable.
For b) no-one on the YES has ever argued that the democratic deficit thrown into sharp relief by the Tories hard Brexit position, and the SNP and Greens manifesto positions, do not constitute a mandate for a second referendum. But the reason or trigger for indyref 2 need not be the purpose of indyref 2; the reasons put forward for having the last referendum were manifold, but they were not the purpose of the referendum itself, which was to give Scotland the choice to be independent.
Similarly, it was taken as a given last time around that the choice to be independent was not necessarily an endorsement of all things SNP, or of SNP policy positions. This enabled a diversity of visions to be part of one YES movement – yet so much of the language this time around appears to say ‘a vote for Scottish independence will effectively also be a vote to stay in the EU…and if you don’t like it tough, that’s SNP policy’.
But it’s far from the case that everybody who voted SNP in 2015 or 2016 – those who have given the SNP the mandate to call indyref 2 – voted in support of a pro-EU outlook. A number of respected pollsters and poll researchers have estimated 1 in 3 SNP supporters and 1 in 3 party members will have voted Leave in last June’s EU referendum.
The SNP have painted themselves into a corner on this; the incessant talk about ‘our place in Europe’ has left working class YES voters who voted Leave wondering what their real priority is.
For every NO pro-EU voter who gets on the YES bus, it would seem that a YES Leave voter calls “Stop, I want to get off.” That is a situation that cannot deliver the united majority we need to secure independence, whenever indyref 2 is finally held.
However, at last there are at least some signs of recognition of that hard political reality from the Scottish Government.
Students of the semantics of political language have indeed noted a shift from some SNP spokespeople over the week running up to and beyond the SNP spring conference, and by Nicola herself. Indyref 2, we are told now is ‘not just about Europe’ but ‘the kind of Scotland we want to see’. It’s about avoiding, potentially, ‘Tory Governments for the next fifteen years’. Above all, it’s about giving the Scottish people ‘choice’.
All this is welcome as far as it goes, but it’s going to take more than some carefully triangulated words to unpaint the SNP from their corner, to bring back onto the YES bus the kind of EU sceptic voters we have seen switching from YES back to NO on telly vox-pops every night, AND to keep those NO voters who’ve switched to YES because they want to stay in the EU.
(I hope it’s not stressing the obvious to make clear again that my starting point in all of this is to try and get both sets of voters to vote YES in indyref 2).
In other words, it’s fine to talk about ‘choice’, but how do we make that real for people in the cities, towns and villages of Scotland?
From day one after the June Brexit vote, I and The Point online platform, along with a few others, have argued that ONLY the promise that an indy Scotland will have its own referendum on the question of EU membership can now offer meaningful choice, and cut the Gordian knot we appear to have tied ourselves in.
As time has progressed growing numbers of SNP and YES voters are coming to see the commonsense of that position from both a principled, and strategic, point of view. It can take a lot to shift politicians from previously held conceptions - even the best of them - but we must hope for the best and make our arguments. Politics is concrete.
Did not the referendum of 2014 prove that direct democracy can engage and motivate political participation and civil engagement on a much higher basis than old fashioned party politics? And if, as Nicola Sturgeon has been stressing these last few days, voting YES in a second indyref is most of all about that key word ‘choice’, why not do ourselves a huge favour and offer sovereign Scots their own EU referendum during the lifetime of the first Parliament of an independent Scotland? Such a move would overcome the issue as a potential issue of division for our indyref.
It would create a pole of attraction that, handled properly, can appeal to both those NO voters come over to YES, and those EU sceptical YESSERs we currently seem to be losing.
For good measure – if an independent Scotland means giving a sovereign people real choice and not just ‘politics as usual’, why not promise referenda on membership of NATO, and on whether or not we retain the monarchy or become a modern, democratic republic at the same time? What better message of ‘real change for Scotland’ can we give potential YES voters than saying that the ‘choice’ independence brings will mean more than just your right to elect the government of your choice every five years – important as that is?
That it means big constitutional and existential decisions that go beyond party politics will be decided by direct democracy?
Such a bold offer would burst open the currently narrow channels of debate and allow us to build the consistent majority we need to finally deliver the dream we all share – an independent Scotland.
Other articles by Steve Arnott in The Point include:
(science and ideas)
(Darwinist-Marxism, evolution/revolution, post-capitalism)
(culture, education, The Culture)
(independence, socialism, progressive policy ideas)
(poetry, verse, fiction)
Steve’s novel, Pilot of the Storm, First of ‘The Star King’s Proxy’ trilogy, is also available to buy or rent at…