13 Oct 2016

Does hard Brexit equal Scottish Independence?

Nicola Sturgeon pulled off a clever piece of political craftsmanship at the start of the SNP Conference.

She threw some red meat to the faithful. There would be a draft second independence bill published on Monday and she would make preparations so Scotland could call a referendum before Britain leaves the EU in 2019.

That got an ovation and a roar of support.
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But the First Minister also made sure the activists applauded another line in which she said “I can (count) on your support every step of the way” as she decides whether to delay the referendum beyond 2019.

She was trying to menace Theresa May ahead of a bruising set of negotiations (she wants to keep full membership of the Single Market and just about every power returned from Brussels to go straight to Holyrood – Whitehall sources say she can forget all claims on immigration, competition and VAT powers but could easily get agriculture, fisheries and some environment powers).

But Nicola Sturgeon was also trying to keep her wriggle room open. She wants the referendum threat to be credible but she doesn’t want to be boxed in.

Why?

There was a surge for two weeks after the Brexit vote in support for independence. Then the numbers subsided and the headline figures are now not far off where they were in the referendum in 2014. Nicola Sturgeon knows that the second firing of this gun has to hit the target.

She wants a decent sustained period of the independence cause leading in the polls and that’s not where things are at the moment. That could change.

The still waters of the headline poll figures conceal some serious churning in the depths. The British Election Study estimates that 37% of the Brexit vote in Scotland was made up of people who voted Yes to independence in 2014, about a third of the SNP’s vote in the 2015 general election. The demographic profile of the Scottish vote is similar to the English vote – generally older people with fewer educational qualifications. Here’s some work by the British Election Study.

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SOURCE: BRITISH ELECTION STUDY

But there’s been some movement in the opposite direction too, middle class voters with more educational qualifications who backed No in 2014 but are now horrified by Brexit and ready to make the leap to the Yes camp in a future poll. Since the Brexit vote I’ve met people who worked at the heart of the No campaign who admit it could even include themselves.

Those middle class voters could be a more reliable addition than the working class voters who may not turn out as reliably. That’s certainly how the SNP see it; they feel they are winners in the churn so far and that enough of the others will though data on differential turnout is thin.

The SNP is working up a new economic case for independence. Some close to Nicola Sturgeon believe the last prospectus, “Scotland’s Future,” was a hurried piece of work not really worth more than 6/10. One SNP source said it simply didn’t convince. The best case scenario numbers have proved woefully optimistic. The party now faces the challenge of putting together an analysis that out-performs the last one but in more economically trying circumstances. Business opinion needs to be worked on and the black hole filled in. That will probably require not just an economic growth plan but some cuts in the size of the state as well.

Nicola Sturgeon has more time to achieve all that than a superficial reading of her speech today might suggest. As one aide put it, straight after the referendum on Europe she said the equivalent of “listen to us.” Today she said “listen to us or else.”

If she decides now isn’t the right time to pull the pin on the referendum grenade there’s every sign here that the membership will trust her judgement and leave the decision to her. The loyalty to the leadership was proved by the results of the deputy leadership contest, won by the man who was known to be her favoured candidate, Angus Robertson MP, very convincingly with 52.5% on the first ballot (there were 3 other candidates). The dissident voices you find who are impatient are quite often more recent joiners – “lefties, not long marchers,” one close to Mrs Sturgeon said. “Those who’ve been around a long time know a mission like this isn’t something you launch on a whim,” Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t do much on whim. Today was necessary theatre but not much has changed in terms of SNP policy. But beneath the still waters they hope their time is drawing closer.

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