I had previously written that the SNP’s pro-EU posturing since the 23rd June is a dreadful strategic mistake that is on course to lead it to an even larger referendum defeat than in 2014. I’m not sure if anyone at SNP HQ reads the Perfidious Albion Blog, but the message seems to have reached the party hierarchy as Nicola Sturgeon is expected to shortly announce that the SNP are abandoning their decades long policy of “Independence in the European Union” and will pivot towards leaving the UK to join the EEA instead.
On paper this is a positive move for the SNP as it nullifies the downsides of any referendum campaign tied to the EU. This means no longer having to equate Scottish independence with Eurozone membership, contributing to Eurozone bailout funds and most importantly means Scotland can now remain part of the UK single market and the EU single market where any chance of a hard border being implemented can be minimized.
It is also an attempt to appease the third of Yes voters who supported leaving the EU. SNP supporters are the most Eurosceptic of any major political party in Scotland and polling evidence was demonstrating that Sturgeon’s unrelenting pro-EU stance was driving them away from supporting independence. Major new powers to be delivered from Brussels in areas of fishing, employment, state aid laws and the return of Scotland’s historical fishing territories will also no longer have to be handed back to the EU on day one of separation.
However it does remove from Nicola Sturgeon the entire rationale of any electoral mandate for a second referendum. The SNP’s May 2016 manifesto stated:
“We believe that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people – or if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”
There is zero evidence demonstrating majority support for independence and if the goal of a second referendum is no longer to keep Scotland within the EU then there is simply no need nor case for having a second plebiscite. The SNP will have to contend themselves with respecting the 2014 result while they build their new case for separation.
The SNP now has to wait until they win a majority in a future parliament with a clear electoral mandate to hold a second referendum. The earliest this can happen is 2021 and if they arise victorious from that election then a referendum could take place within the next year by mid-2022.
However this new policy of EEA membership is superficial as the SNP will still remain a party committed to Scotland being a member of the European Union, as would likely every other major party after independence excepting perhaps the Tories. Upon separating from the UK, EEA membership will only be a holding pen until such time has passed that the pro-EU parties in Scotland can galvanize themselves for a referendum on joining the EU.
Therefore, any SNP posturing on EEA membership is essentially an attempt to hoodwink Yes/Leave voters into supporting breaking away from the UK. The destination still remains full membership of the European Union but the SNP are just ensuring travellers will take a little longer to arrive there. Some wavering Eurosceptic independence supporters will follow but I suspect many will see through this.
Sturgeon may also find that this new direction gives a number of Europhile independence supporters pause for thought as it represents a major weakening of the SNP’s pro-EU stance and leaves some doubt over whether Scotland will ever join the EU. This scepticism could be exacerbated further if the SNP start articulating anti-EU arguments and rhetoric to Eurosceptic elements of their electorate.
Most of all though this really would be a stunning admission of failure a mere seven months after Nicola Sturgeon took to the nation’s airwaves in an attempt to fill the post-Brexit political vacuum to declare that Scotland being taken out of the EU was “democratically unacceptable” and that a second referendum was therefore “on the table”. The SNP genuinely believed Brexit would be a gamechanger for Scotland’s view of independence but it has resulted in no ensuing bump in support and has instead made the prospectus for separation much more expensive, difficult and rupturous whilst alienating the 500,000 Yes/Leave voters.
After 27 years the SNP appear set to ditch their core policy of “Independence in the European Union” because they realised it was driving the cause of Scottish independence into a gaping chasm. Discarding such a core policy and one that had up to now provided the entire basis for her party’s every action has reputational consequences. To all but the most devout follower Nicola Sturgeon will look flakey and insincere. She may also find she now shares Labour’s problem of attempting to appease both sides of a constitutional divide and ending up pleasing none of them.