Murdo Fraser | Sturgeon doesn’t speak for Scotland

Photograph: 'Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliament's lead Brexit negotiator, meeting with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon' / ALDE Communication

It’s sometimes depressing just how superficial an understanding of Scottish politics many London commentators have. Any utterance by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is too often taken automatically as an expression of national consensus.

This seems particularly the case whenever there is a pronouncement in relation to the consequences of Brexit. So too often we see headlines in London-based newspapers stating that “Scotland demands continued access to EU single market”, or “Scotland demands separate EU deal from rest of UK”.

Reading some of this commentary, and you would assume that everyone in Scotland had voted Remain in the EU referendum, that everyone in Scotland was now outraged that Brexit was taking place and that we were all demanding a different deal with the EU than the one applying to the UK as a whole. And, if this is not delivered, then we will all be voting for independence.

The reality is somewhat different. Firstly, not everyone in Scotland voted Remain. True, the percentage vote was 62% Remain versus 38% to Leave, but still, a substantial chunk of the Scottish population, 1 million people, in fact, voted Leave in the campaign where hardly a single senior Scottish political figure championed the cause.

Interestingly, of those 1 million Leave voters, around 400,000 are reckoned to be SNP supporters. Perhaps this is not surprising: after all, a nationalist who thinks that his country should be independent is hardly likely to be any more enthusiastic about membership of the EU than he would be about the membership of the UK.

This puts into perspective the recent vote in the House of Commons on triggering Article 50, where only one single Scottish Member of Parliament out of 59, David Mundell, voted in favour. He was the only voice representing the 1 million Leave voters in Scotland. Shamefully, the entire SNP Parliamentary party totally ignored the views of the 400,000 of their own party supporters who had voted Leave, and spoke with one voice. Democratic deficit, anyone?

At least in the Scottish Parliament, one SNP MSP, Alex Neil, the former Health Secretary, has had the courage to speak out and say he voted Leave. Others have claimed that as many as five or six SNP MSPs joined him, but for now, they have not been brave enough to identify themselves.

The SNP’s position on Brexit is now that Scotland should have a different relationship with the EU than the UK as a whole, specifically membership of EFTA, as Norway has. But, even if there were public support for going down such a route, it is fraught with difficulties.

As both Prof Michael Keating and Charles Grant, advisors to Nicola Sturgeon on European matters, have pointed out, Scotland being in EFTA while the rest of the UK remained outside would mean the creation of a “hard border”, with customs checks, between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

And this matters hugely. Because 64% of Scotland’s trade is done with the rest of the UK, as against only around 15% done with the EU. To favour EU trade over UK trade is simply economic madness.

Nor is there any evidence that the public in Scotland is enthusiastic about a separate EU deal. Such a move would also require the agreement of the UK Government, which looks unlikely to be forthcoming, and the unanimous agreement of the other member countries of the EU (and it’s hard to imagine Spain, for example, being enthusiastic about Scotland having a separate deal given the precedent this might set).

If there can’t be a separate deal for Scotland, Sturgeon has warned, then a second independence referendum is “almost inevitable”. The rhetoric on this has been ramped up in current weeks, almost to the point where Sturgeon has boxed herself into a corner. And yet public opinion remains resolutely opposed to her government going down this route.

The latest polling suggests that only 25% of Scots support a second independence referendum before Brexit takes place. The polls overall show very little, if any, growth in support for independence since the EU referendum.

Indeed, there is evidence that large numbers of those who voted Yes in 2014 and who also voted Leave in 2016, have now changed their mind on the independence question altogether, and would vote No in IndyRef2. Reverend David Robertson, the former Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, has written eloquently on his own blog about his journey from a 2014 Yes voter to being a No voter today, and he certainly represents a substantial strand of opinion in Scottish society.

Nor is the continued emphasis on the constitutional question doing Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity in Scotland any favours. Opinion polls show that her personal standing is on the slide, having been eclipsed by the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. On the domestic agenda, her government faces increasing difficulties – on the Scottish economy (where growth is running at on third of the UK average), on education (where standards are falling), on policing, on the health service, and on transport.

It is perhaps little wonder that Ms Sturgeon sees the political distraction offered by Brexit as an opportunity to divert attention from away from her government’s dismal domestic failings, and is promoting a grievance agenda against Westminster in order to try and drive up Yes support.

Should Sturgeon decide to go for IndyRef2, and it now looks almost impossible for her not to, then the ball bounces into Theresa May’s court. The Scottish Parliament cannot call a referendum without Westminster’s approval. And while there will be some who will argue that in those circumstances the Prime Minister should simply say no, there are some risks that in so doing she might cause a backlash and a surge in pro-independence support.

But what Theresa May can do is set down rules around the timing of any referendum. It is perfectly legitimate to argue, for example, that any referendum cannot take place until after Brexit has been completed: for until that event occurs, how can we fully understand what Brexit means?

In addition, to make a properly informed decision, Scots voters would need to know on what basis an independent Scotland would be admitted to the EU? Would, for example, it be required to join the Euro if convergence criteria were met? And what would happen to Scottish fishing grounds, at a time when the Scottish fishing industry has been the most enthusiastic about Brexit and the prospect of taking back control?

In many ways, I hope we don’t have another independence referendum. The memories of the bitter and divisive experience that was the vote in 2014 are still too fresh. And any re-run would be much more bitter, much more divisive, and much more destructive.

But, if it happens, I would be confident that, once again, the Scottish people would reaffirm their commitment to membership of the United Kingdom. And, deep down, I suspect both Nicola Sturgeon and her lieutenants in the SNP know that too.

So despite all the spin, the sound, the fury and the bluster from Sturgeon and her colleagues, the weight of Scottish opinion grudgingly accepts that Brexit is happening, and doesn’t want further constitutional turmoil to complicate the matter further at this time. That may not make for a great headline in London, but that’s the way it is.

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  • Darren

    Murdo – I have a few questions for you about your article

    1. Does Theresa May speak for the UK? Aren’t similar headlines regular for her statements on behalf of the country?

    2. Do you believe that the current Westminster govt is representing the 47.5% who voted remain? How many Tory politicians voted against Brexit in parliament? 1? Is that shameful? Considering that staying in the EU was part of the Tory 2015 manifesto? Considering that potentially 82 Tory MPs that voted Brexit had constituencies that voted Remain?

    3. Ruth Davidsons popularity eclipses Sturgeon’s – are we likely to see this represented in actual votes and not just polling data anytime soon? Davidson has been leader of the Tories for 6 years and has been able to convert some Labour voters but still has a lower % of the vote than Thatcher did in Scotland…

    4. I’m glad that you are not opposing Scotland’s right to a second referendum following Holyrood’s majority vote in favour but you want to wait till after Brexit has been completed. Can you let us all know if/when the govt has any idea when this would be? May has stated that the deal should be outlined in 18 months? Is that true? If the govt is unable to make a deal, as many in the Tory party think is possible, then we would know there is no deal in 2 years? So at some point between a deal in 18 months and no deal in 24 months we could have a referendum based on your negotiations? Obviously it takes time to organise so lets put the process in place now and then when you have a deal or no deal we can then vote.

    5. Can you state on what specific terms people voted to leave the EU prior to the Brexit vote? Can you tell me what terms are about to be negotiated with the EU for leaving? You can focus on Scottish fishing specifically if you’d like. I’m gong to guess that the answer to both is NO. But you are stating that we need to know what the terms are for rejoining the EU even before you have taken us out?