How Nicola Sturgeon could help Brexit win the EU referendum

Quiz time. Who tweeted this over the weekend:

‘Quisling Tories characterise independence, freedom & democracy as “a leap into the void”. Other countries can have independence. Not us.’

a) A cybernat

b) One of the more intellectually modest SNP MPs

c) Angry Salmond

The answer, surprisingly enough, is d) None of the above.

In fact, Roger Helmer, Ukip MEP for East Midlands, is the author. Helmer seems to have been put on this earth to make Kelvin MacKenzie look like Socrates but his traitor-baiting missive is notable for its ghost of referenda past.

You could be forgiven for assuming a Scottish Nationalist was behind the tweet. The surly victimhood. The populist strawmanning. The blithe accusation that opponents are working against their own country. At least ageing hippies earned their flashbacks dropping all that acid. Voters in Scotland are reliving the independence referendum every day as the plebiscite on EU membership ramps up.

Where the SNP had Business for Scotland, the Brexiters have Business for Britain. Where “Labour” for Independence claimed to represent a groundswell of separatist support within Scottish Labour, Labour Leave is offered as the voice of centre-left Euroscepticism. For the Sunday Herald, see the Daily Express and for Alex Salmond, Nigel Farage.

Brexiters have yet to adopt the media intimidation tactics seen on the Yes side in Scotland but they share an antipathy for the BBC. It is all but inevitable that mobs will surround New Broadcasting House at some point.

These echoes are to be expected. A year and a half on from September 2014, Britain faces another referendum between unionists who assure us we are better together in a larger political and economic partnership and nationalists who say it’s time to go it alone and make our own decisions. Flags and facts will join battle over Europe as they did over the United Kingdom.

That doesn’t mean those campaigning for an Out vote have to replicate the strategies and tactics seen in Scotland. Echoes are not determinants; the stakes are distinct and the risks and rewards different. The temptation, however, will be mighty, especially as polling day nears and the numbers stubbornly refuse to shift.

If Brexiters must take cues from Scotland’s separatists, they should realise that there were two SNP campaigns for independence. Alex Salmond, who dedicated many years to planing off the rough edges of his party, reverted to type and swaggered around the country stoking tensions and branding his opponents “a parcel of rogues”. Unseemly as it was to see a statesman, the first First Minister worthy of the title, braying like a cybernat let out of the basement, Salmond’s demagoguery appealed to angry middle-aged men.

These voters, many of them traditionally aligned to Labour, resented the global financial crisis and the way its burdens had fallen on the shoulders of hard-pressed families while the bankers continued to draw their Premier League bonuses. Salmond didn’t necessarily dissent from the standard left analysis of casino capitalism run amok but he channelled public resentment to a different enemy, a national enemy. Westminster, not the City, was the source of Scotland’s ills.

There was another campaign that ran in parallel to Salmond’s rabble-rousing. Nicola Sturgeon, then still his deputy but already his superior in political judgement and temperament, toured the town halls and TV studios making the positive case for a Yes vote. It was no less ruthless and no less sophistic in its promises of social democratic jam tomorrow and threats of NHS privatisation under the Union. But it was more often than not an appeal to the better part of us, to optimism for our family and hope for our country. Salmond’s belligerence cost him the history books but Sturgeon’s is a nationalism even non-nationalists can respect.

As the Leave movement assembles its troops for a fight where all the institutional advantage is on the other side, it should set aside Salmond’s divide-and-rule playbook. The poison that was injected into the Scottish public discourse during the referendum has not been drawn and the beginnings of a US-style kulturkampf can be glimpsed. A small nation tucked away in the wilds of north-western Europe can afford to be insular and polarised but a world power – as Britain still, just, is – cannot. Brexiters are a patriotic bunch and will not wish to inflict acrimony on their country.

Instead they should look to Sturgeon’s approach. A positive, upbeat message that the UK can prosper as a sovereign nation outside the EU. That a vote to leave is not a retreat into Little England but a confident step out into the world. You are no less British if you vote for the status quo, Out campaigners should reassure the public, but you can be a good European while rejecting the diktats of an unaccountable bureaucracy. None of this will obscure the very real political, economic, and security risks of secession but it is the noblest tack and the one most likely to result in victory.

There is a legitimate case for the UK to leave the EU, which even those of us who do not concur can concede. Its logic is stronger and more intellectually coherent than the mush of economic fantasy, sentiment, and prejudice that came to dominate the anti-UK campaign in the Scottish referendum. Had Nicola Sturgeon’s arguments set the tone in that contest, Yes might have won the day. If they emulate her style, Leave still might.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Fernando Butcher by Creative Commons 2.0.

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