Nicola Sturgeon’s Brexit Dilemma

Doubtless the question that delegates gathering at the SNP conference in Glasgow this weekend will have uppermost in their minds is whether Nicola Sturgeon will fire the starting gun for a second independence referendum. When in June of last year she announced that she was putting on hold the Scottish Parliament’s request to Westminster that it be granted the authority to hold another ballot, she indicated that she would provide an update this autumn. SNP activists might well, therefore, be hoping that during the next few days she will at least provide something of a clue about what she is now thinking.

But, in truth, there may be a more pressing referendum decision facing Ms Sturgeon in the coming weeks. This is what the SNP’s stance should be on holding a referendum on whatever Brexit deal the Prime Minister may bring back from Brussels. There is clearly a possibility at least that Mrs May’s deal (assuming she secures one) will be voted down by the House of Commons when it holds its so-called ‘meaningful vote’ on the outcome of the EU negotiations. If that should happen, then all of the opposition parties will face pressure to indicate what they think should happen next  – with one option being to put the issue to the public. They might just even find themselves fighting a general election in which the future of the Brexit process is the central issue.

At first glance it might be thought rather surprising that Ms Sturgeon has so far opted to sit on the fence on the question of a second EU referendum. After all, most SNP supporters are opposed to Brexit; in a recent YouGov poll for the pro-EU referendum People’s Vote campaign, those 2017 SNP voters who said that they would vote Remain in a second EU ballot outnumbered those who stated they would back Leave by nearly four (79%) to one (21%). Equally nearly two-thirds (65%) said that they backed holding a ‘public vote on the outcome’ while only 20% were opposed. Indeed, SNP supporters were at least as keen on the idea as Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters. It would seem that backing a second EU referendum should be an easy choice for Ms Sturgeon to make.

Yet in practice things are rather more complicated. First of all, there is the nationalist fear that dare not speak its name, namely that any second referendum on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU might be regarded as a precedent for what should happen if Scotland were ever to vote in favour of the principle of independence. The idea that there would need to be a second referendum on the terms of Scotland’s departure from the UK has been one against which the party has long since set its face.

Meanwhile, backing a second referendum with a view to securing a Remain vote has rather more risks than immediately meets the eye. The coalition of supporters that gathered behind Yes to independence in 2014 is not as pro-European as those who backed the SNP in last year’s UK general election.  According to the YouGov/People’s Vote poll, only 69% of 2014 Yes voters back Remain in a second referendum, while 31% support Leave, figures that are not dissimilar to how Yes voters were recorded as having voted in the 2016 referendum.

Two points follow. First, backing a EU referendum runs the risk of exacerbating the division over Brexit that exists in the wider Yes movement – and with the polls still showing Yes to be behind, if Ms Sturgeon is ever to lead her country down the path of independence that is a prospect that she needs to avoid. Second, the fact that support for Remain is so high amongst those who voted SNP in 2017 is in part at least a reflection of the fact that, as we showed in the most recent British Social Attitudes report, the party lost ground particularly heavily among those who voted Leave the previous year. In short, there is already evidence that backing Remain can cost the nationalist movement the support of Leave voters.

At the same time, Ms Sturgeon faces a Brexit paradox. She and most of her party may be firmly committed to remaining part of the EU, but in truth she probably regards her shortest route to holding and winning a second independence referendum to be for the UK to leave the EU, only for the endeavour then to come to be regarded as something of a disaster by voters. Indeed, much excitement was created towards the end of the summer when a poll by Deltapoll for the pro-EU Best for Britain campaign reported that 47% said that they would vote for independence should the UK leave the EU, while only 43% stated that they would vote to stay part of the UK.  In truth, the results of such hypothetical questions should always be taken with a pinch of salt, while the swing from how the same group of respondents said that they would vote in an independence referendum held now was, at 3%, decidedly small. But still, Ms Sturgeon must be wondering how much effort she should put into rescuing the UK from what she at least doubtless regards as its Brexit folly.

This post is also published on the website.

Avatar photo

About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.