I do hope – for their sake only I stress – that the SNP have got things right about the EU referendum.
Their latest gambit is to say that a referendum held too close to the Holyrood election in May would be ‘disrespectful’ of the Scottish parliament. When I first saw this in a tweet from Humza Yousaf he only mentioned Holyrood. Repeating the claim recently, the first minister broadened her concerns to encompass Welsh assembly elections (understandable – birds of a feather…), the London mayoral election, and a swathe of English council elections, the latter two geographies parts of the country the SNP have shown scant concern for until now.
I don’t buy the ‘disrespect’ claim. After all, although nationalists don’t like it, foreign affairs are no responsibility of the Scottish parliament or, for that matter, any of the other elected bodies she mentions.
What I could understand was a claim that the elections concerned and a referendum too close together would do two undesirable things – first, muddle the issues in people’s minds and second, strain the resources of all parties across the UK, not to mention the resources of returning officers, although I accept that should be very much a secondary concern.
The particular collision of timing mentioned recently is between all the elections mentioned above in May and a possible EU referendum in June. The latter is by no means certain and I’m sure two contradictory tendencies will be weighing in the prime minister’s mind. On the one hand, it’s probably touch and go whether any negotiations will be done and dusted in time for a June referendum. On the other hand, miss a June date and the summer holidays suggest September’s the earliest date he could go for, by which time the ‘outs’ will have had another three months to organise, research and campaign.
Some say the ‘muddling the issues’ point is patronising to electors. I accept that for many it’s not a problem but the capacity of the great British/Scottish public to be muddled seems undiminished. I noticed the recent Survation opinion poll in Scotland for the Daily Record told its respondents ‘In the Westminster Election of 2015, 66% of people voted’ and then asked ‘Can you remember whether or not you voted in that specific election?’ 79% said they had voted.
The other issue that has been evident for some time is that the SNP are claiming a referendum vote to leave the EU will be a trigger for a second Scottish separation referendum. This makes a number of assumptions that are quite high risk for the SNP.
The first and obvious one is that despite the always hyped-up and alleged differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK, the vote goes the same way across the country, even if by different margins.
The second is that Scotland does vote differently from the UK but Westminster declines to concede another Scottish referendum. Why should they? Remember ‘once in a generation’? That would leave the SNP with the choice of knuckling down to devolved government with another grievance tucked under their belt, or going all Catalan and attempting some informal test by vote of the latest appetite for independence.
But perhaps the biggest risk for the SNP is that they do get a second crack at the separation whip soon after an EU referendum split. This will bring them a whole range of dilemmas about how to play their cards. First, they’d actually have to get a majority for independence, and that’s by no means certain. Then, if they did win, what chance to negotiate a successful entry to the EU as a new state? Scotland would have only the 20th largest population of all EU countries. Think of the priorities of the giants like Germany and France at a time when the EU would be convulsed with the departure of the UK, and that on top of all its other problems. To raise just one issue the SNP failed to sort in the last referendum – currency. Would they still want to use the pound sterling (presumably in the way Zimbabwe uses the US dollar)? Or would they accept the conditions that the EU impose on all new members, including adopting the Euro? It’s quite easy to see a situation in which, behind some nice words, the EU says ‘This is the deal, take it or leave it.’
As the EU referendum gets closer it continues to show the SNP in its usual light – a party of grievance and confrontation with one aim only, hence the easy recourse to language like ‘disrespect’ and ‘trigger for another independence referendum.’ What they are incapable of doing is accepting that the Scottish parliamentary elections and the EU referendum are two separate things.
How much more respect the majority of the population would feel for them if they worked in harmony with other parties and groups across the UK who also want to remain in the EU. Chance of that happening – zero.
They may regret the many decisions they have to make around the EU referendum.