The 'People's Vote' campaign needs to win over England, not Scotland

THE fight against Brexit has seen the best and worst of people, of all politics and none, but it has also been two years of tooth grinding frustration that sometimes boils over. It did in Edinburgh last weekend with the “People’s Vote” campaign for a second EU referendum public meeting and the reaction of some folks to some of the things that were said.

There’s no good Brexit. Any Brexit in any form is going to hurt real people in the real world for no gain whatsoever. To be clear on my own view: there’s no Brexit that makes independence more likely.

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First published in The National, 25 August 2018

I don’t see people fearful for their futures having much appetite for, as they would see it, more uncertainty, I think they’ll stick with the comfort blanket, however threadbare, of the UK.

It is in our interests to stop Brexit – the question is how can we best do that and how sustainable a solution will it be. I’ve been working across all parties in Brussels to support efforts to turn it round. But the whole lesson, surely, of the EU referendum is that different messages work in different places. So, often I have supported English colleagues behind the scenes but stepped back from getting too publicly into England’s debate because I’m not sure an SNP voice would help.

I think this weekend proves there’s some nuances to the debate in Scotland that are best left to people in Scotland to sort out.

So my own view on the People’s Vote campaign is best summarised as “open, but not persuaded” and I’m confident I’m not alone in the SNP or independence movement. It is worth explaining here the reticence of the SNP to get behind the People’s Vote campaign as it seems to be perplexing to many folks South of the border who seem put out that we are in no rush to drop everything and run to try fix something we did not break.

Firstly, democracy matters, it is integral to our route to an independent Scotland and anything that could undermine popular sovereignty is something we are always going to be very wary of.

Scotland has already voted, and we voted clearly 62% across every counting region to Remain.

Since that point our government and parliament have left no stone unturned in analysing the potential impacts and proposing solutions, however uncomfortable. We were promised by Theresa May a “UK approach”. Our national Parliament united (minus the Tories) in defence of the Brexit assault on our devolved powers. At every turn Westminster and Whitehall have trashed our attempts to compromise.

The UK Government has comprehensively ignored Scotland’s interests. In the Commons, MPs literally groan as SNP representatives raise Scotland’s issues, and when the SNP leader at Westminster Ian Blackford asked in frustration what more he could do to focus attention on Scotland, one of the Tories shouted “suicide!” Ripping larks, chaps.

We have zero faith that these MPs would view any further vote differently. Unless there is a cast iron guarantee that, this time, Scotland’s vote will be respected then we’re confident in the vote we’ve had.

Secondly, the what, when, and how of a referendum are not straightforward. What would any second vote be on? It is easy to say “the terms of the deal” but, trust me, there will be damn all detail to vote upon. The Withdrawl Agreement, if we even get to one, only deals with the exit issues, paying the debts, agreeing the transition period, that sort of thing. The crucial future relationship talks will now not even begin – unless the timetable extends – until after the UK’s exit, with these vital details for all our lives relegated to an aspirational “political declaration” annexed to the Withdrawal Agreement, and as meaningless as the Chequers Agreement is proving to be.

So in the absence of any real detail to consider, there’s no material change of circumstance since the last vote, the debate will default back to In or Out, Yes or No and the discourse will be every bit as bad as it was.

Yes of course, there is a lot of evidence coming to light that the Leave campaigns played fast and loose with date protection, campaign finance and electoral law, and ventilating that will contribute to the smell that this vote ain’t right, but for millions of people it remains their view and they’re hostile to a rerun.

Crucially, can a referendum be properly brought forward in time, before March, so the vote happens while the UK is still in the EU? No. No danger. I do not see how any referendum legislation can properly be brought forward in less than nine months, and if it is not done properly then any result will be litigated to destruction.

So any second vote while still in the EU will necessitate an extension of the Article 50 period, and this will need to be proposed by the UK Government and agreed to by EU27.

This is of course possible, but it is no small obstacle and I’ve seen some of the People’s Vote folks dismiss it with a panglossian hauteur that a Brexiteer would be proud of.

FINALLY, the politics and personnel are problematic in Scotland. Scotland’s position is clear. This was broken in England. Any calls to redo the vote need to be a clamour of English voices and I’m doing a great deal to encourage English colleagues to help that to build.

But if the SNP got behind the People’s Vote campaign I think it risks being counterproductive because the people who are into Brexit are not great fans of ours either. This isn’t us being passive, it’s a realistic assessment of what we can usefully influence and a clear-eyed assessment of the risk of backlash.

Finally, I need to be gentle here but part of the problem are the campaigns themselves.

We did not have much to do with the official UK Remain campaigns in Scotland, not because we disagreed on the objective, but because we didn’t have much confidence in the campaign. And we won in Scotland.

Unfortunately, the same problems we faced in the referendum still apply and many of the same mistakes are being made. The “metropolitan elite” stuff matters and too many statements from too many folks advocating a People’s Vote are too easily characterised as just that.

Even the name of one of the organisations, Best for Britain, is, bluntly, tin-eared. It raises my hackles and I’m more cross party than most. The very name of the organisation calling on us all to work together alienates the dominant party of most pro EU nation of the UK, and ignores entirely the only other one that voted remain, Northern Ireland.

Even setting this aside the campaign itself is curious, People’s Vote. Who voted in the last one, badgers? The most potent argument the Leave campaign now has is that the pro-vote campaign hates democracy and resents voters. There’s too much of the campaign that does indeed lend itself to that, like coming to Edinburgh during the festival to hold a rally in the first place and seeking (in parts, expecting or, indeed, demanding) SNP support as a key objective rather than persuading folk South of the border.

So, yes we’re open to another EU vote, but we’re respectful of the vote of the Scottish people and indeed of other places. If calls for a second referendum become a thing in England it’s clear to the dugs in the street we will not stop it happening. But it has to become a thing in England if it is to work, and advocates of a second referendum would do well to focus entirely on that and leave Scotland to us.

We’ll be there when it will be useful but there’s another house needs to be put in order and it isn’t for want of trying on our part.