Iain McWhirter: Gamble for the SNP in asking voters too many complex questions

MONEY, as we know, never sleeps. The former editor of the Daily Record, Murray Foote, has revealed that, on the eve of the independence referendum in 2014, he was deluged by requests from financial businesses and hedge funds desperate for advance knowledge of the title’s eve-of-vote opinion poll. With commendable directness he told them to get lost. Others may not have been so punctilious. Analysis of currency movements by financial website Bloomberg suggests that hedge funds made a fortune from insider dealing over the Brexit referendum in by trading on unpublished exit polls. It’s being called the great Brexit short.

Well, the hedgies and short-sellers could be in for another couple of bumper shorts now that the SNP is edging closer to endorsing not just another independence referendum but also one on Brexit. Referendum-fatigued voters may quail at the thought of two repeat referendums but the indications are that the Scottish Government is moving rapidly in the direction of backing the People’s Vote on Brexit. The Brexit minister, Michael Russell, and the Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, have both made “I-am-not-opposed” statements in the past week, which suggests that they support another vote on Europe, even if their leader has yet to make her position clear.

There has been an intense debate in the SNP over a second EU referendum, with influential former advisers like Kevin Pringle and Noel Dolan advising the First Minister that she has a moral and political duty to lead the opposition to Brexit, Labour having lost the plot on Europe. The argument is that Scots voted by 62 per cent to 38% in favour of Remain and they should be represented by the Scottish Government. They have despaired at Nicola Sturgeon’s apparent willingness to accept a special deal on access to the single market as an acceptable “second best” to EU membership.

It’s understandable that Ms Sturgeon has been somewhat resistant to these representations. She’s already under pressure from the “mandate tendency” in her party to call the second independence referendum forthwith, on the grounds that the “triple-lock” mandate she won after last year’s Holyrood vote is time limited. But, having called a referendum and then uncalled it only a year ago, she does not want to risk falling into the trap of calling another one she is likely to lose. She sees no romantic glory in heroic failure.

As for the second Europe referendum, her anxieties have been two fold. First, while Scots may be dedicated Europeans, there has been only a slight movement in the UK opinion polls toward Remain and any People’s Vote would have to be UK-wide. Moreover, Ms Sturgeon is bound to be uneasy at the possible precedent that might be set by holding a referendum on the deal struck by Theresa May next year. As former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars has argued, there would be similar demands in Scotland for a confirmatory vote on whatever deal the First Minister might strike with the rest of the UK after Scottish independence.

It’s a difficult one, made more so by the suggestion that the second Brexit and independence votes might be held simultaneously. Mr Russell has refused to rule this out in cryptic statements on the relationship between the two ballots. A double-headed referendum might on the surface make some sense. It would be more efficient to hold the two votes on the same day and they are politically closely related. Many Scottish voters only voted No in 2014 because they believed that it was the way to guarantee that Scotland remained in the EU. So why not deal with both issues on the same day?

Well, a moment’s thought on a double-headed referendum reveals some serious problems. For a start, voters might feel they are being railroaded by these referendums and many might refuse to vote, or even vote No, because they’re fed up with being asked the same questions again. There is also the problem of the referendums cancelling each other out. If voters believe that Britain is likely to rejoin the EU in ballot one would that not make them less likely to support independence in number two?

Then there are the Scots eurosceptics. It is not just the remnants of Ukip that dislike the EU. An influential strand of Nationalist opinion, led by the former minister Alex Neil, wants to stay out. Many on the Left of the Nationalist movement are unhappy at the lack of democracy in the Brussels bureaucracy and its attitude to small nations like Greece. Yes-supporting organisations like Common Weal and Radical Independence Campaign would argue that, if there is to be a multi-option referendum on Brexit, it should include an option of Scotland remaining in the European Economic Area and not being subject to the Common Agricultural Policy or the EU Court of Justice.

There is no indication that Theresa May is likely to endorse a second Scottish referendum or a second EU referendum for that matter. She said last year that “now is not the time” for an independence referendum and, given the chaotic state of the Brexit negotiations since then, she’s hardly likely to want another referendum on Europe. Westminster needs to pass a Section 30 order permitting Scotland to hold a constitutional referendum and there is not a cat in hell’s chance of that happening at present.

Nor is there much momentum behind the People’s Vote, despite 100,000 marching in London, because Labour remains opposed.

So this may all seem rather academic. But it is right to look at these questions because politics is in such a fluid state that almost anything is possible in the next couple of years. The UK Government might fall and there might be a “no-deal” Brexit, which would generate a UK-wide revulsion at the whole project. There are signs that Scottish No-voting opinion-formers are reconsidering independence. The SNP is right to make contingency plans.

There is a vacuum in UK politics and Ms Sturgeon could perform a valuable leadership role in leading the opposition to Brexit, in time. However, she should be careful about voter tolerance. The money men may love referendums but there’s no sign that Scottish voters have yet regained their enthusiasm for being handed complex, divisive questions that the politicians can’t resolve.

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