Ballot-weary Scottish voters, be warned. Politicians aren’t going to let you rest. In the next couple of years there could be a second Scottish independence referendum, if Nicola Sturgeon gets her way, and/or a second EU referendum if Labour leadership contender Owen Smith gets his way. We’ve already had two stressful referendums in the last two years and two parliamentary elections. And there could be another UK general election if the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, decides she needs to secure her own electoral mandate and engineers a no confidence motion. Voters won’t know which way to turn.
Admittedly, it is hard to know whether Mr Smith is serious about a second EU referendum or just taking another pop at his trainspotting rival Jeremy Corbyn who is currently locked in controversy with Sir Richard Branson over seating arrangements on Virgin trains. Mr Corbyn said after the EU referendum in June Article 50, triggering the Brexit process, should take place “immediately”, fuelling suspicions he might be a closet Brexiter. Mr Smith clearly thinks he can mop up pro-EU votes in the Labour leadership election by promising a repeat referendum.
Some believe Mr Smith is just making it up as he goes along. However, his call for MPs to block Brexit negotiations unless there is a promise of a second referendum or a general election to ratify the final package is not quite as daft as it sounds. It already has some traction in Westminster. The pro-EU tendency in the Conservative Party, led by the former Chancellor Ken Clarke, has called for parliament to throw a spanner in the Article 50 works. After all, the EU referendum was only advisory and Westminster still has to endorse the vote.
The Labour MP David Lammy says it is the duty of “our sovereign parliament” to “stop the madness” of Brexit – to save the voters from themselves. The SNP and the Liberal Democrats might well be up for a bit of blocking, especially if it splits the Conservative and Labour parties. More than four million people have signed a petition calling for a second EU referendum which will be debated in the Commons on September 5. This will not be binding on the government, but it could focus the minds of voters who are having second thoughts.
Of course, parliament rejecting the Brexit vote would be seen by many as a rejection of democracy itself. The press would be furious at any rejection of the people’s will by unpopular MPs. Mr Smith said yesterday “people didn’t know what they were voting for” in the EU referendum, which will sound offensive to those many Labour voters in the north of England who seemed to know perfectly well. At least he didn’t call them “lunatics”.
However, since there is widespread confusion about what leaving the EU actually means in practice, there is no reason why MPs in Westminster, and MSPs in Holyrood, can’t raise legitimate questions about the process of Brexit and its destination. In the process they could rely on our old friends, Messrs Delay and Fudge, to undermine the government’s determination to proceed with a “hard” Brexit.
Mrs May seems in no hurry to fire the Brexit starting pistol, and she might even by up for a bit of honest blockage herself. She says she wants to secure a “UK-wide approach”, meaning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be on board before Article 50 is declared. We don’t know how serious she is about giving Nicola Sturgeon a veto, but it has certainly led to speculation she might use it as an ultimatum to her europhobic backbench: accept “soft” Brexit – that is, remaining in the EU’s single market – or risk the break up of Britain.
The 56 MPs sitting as Scottish Nationalists would certainly join in any move led by pro-European Labour and Conservative MPs to keep Britain in single market, which Ms Sturgeon has said is a priority for Scotland. I’m not sure they would go as far as supporting Mr Smith in another EU referendum, not least because Ms Sturgeon is supposedly about to declare another Scottish independence referendum herself. The first minister is doing nothing to dampen expectations of an imminent second independence referendum and the SNP might prefer to get theirs in first.
Mind you before Article 50 is actually declared, it may not be clear what Scots are voting for. Would we be voting to leave a UK that is irrevocably and irretrievably leaving Europe, or would we be voting to leave a UK destined to remain in the European Economic Area? A soft Brexit, with the UK staying in the European Single Market (ESM) complete with free movement and the retention of most EU law, is a very different proposition to the “hard” Brexit of fortress Britain advocated by the anti-European hard liners.
Would English voters see soft Brexit as a sell-out to Brussels? Possibly, since it would not put a stop to EU immigration. But if matters are delayed in the parliamentary mill, immigration may be a less toxic issue in two or three years time – not least because the Brexit vote has made potential EU migrants think twice about coming here. If EU migration really is down to the tens of thousands as some forecast, then English voters might be persuaded the real problem is migration from non-EU countries. Mrs May might then be able to sell the line that Britain has indeed Brexited, but is remaining in the EEA for purely economic and trade reasons.
Where would that leave Scotland? Well, that depends on whether we are in or out of the United Kingdom by that stage. The First Minister needs to make her mind up about a second indepdence referendum. It might seem madness to hold a referendum so soon after the Gers figures confirmed the collapse in the oil price has shredded Scotland’s accounts. On the other hand, voters simply don’t believe partisan economic numbers anymore, not least because of the widespread misuse of statistics during the last two referendums.
Unionist glee at the troubles in the offshore oil industry (onshore is doing rather well) has never gone down particularly well with Scottish voters. And now that Scotland is being dragged unwillingly out of Europe, with unknown economic consequences, the Gers figures seem almost completely redundant. There is no longer any safe “caring sharing” unionist status quo to fall back on. The status quo has turned into a crazy train of uncertainty with Scotland hitched to a UK driven by xenophobic right wing Conservatives and destined for the unknown.
There might never be a better time for a second independence referendum. On the other hand, there might never be a worse time. My sense is that Scottish voters have been thinking very seriously independence since the EU referendum and that Brexit would be a break-point for the Union. But it hasn’t actually happened yet. There is an air of unreality, and it is hard for voters to see through the fog of confusion, rumour and bitterness in Westminster.
Meanwhile, the major parties are like the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs holding a gun to each other’s heads and waiting to see who breaks first. It’s a Mexican stand off. The big question is: does Nicola still feel lucky?