‘Let me say this loudly and clearly,’ Nicola Sturgeon intoned. ‘If the issue comes before the House of Commons, SNP MPs will support a People’s Vote which includes the option to remain in the EU.’
The SNP leader was addressing the People’s Vote march in London and she had to speak loudly and clearly because she was 300 miles away in Scotland at the time. Sturgeon appeared instead in a video message, like those Hollywood stars who accept their BAFTA via satellite link because they’re ‘filming in Mexico’ when in fact they’re at home but not willing to leave the poolside for anything less than an Oscar.
A People’s Vote on Brexit is Sturgeon’s idea of a BAFTA. She’s holding out for the Academy Award: Indyref 2. That is why the First Minister wasn’t there in person on Saturday. That is why her remarks were delivered in the conditional tense: ‘If the issue comes before the House of Commons’.
The Nationalists are so determined to have a People’s Vote, they’re willing to wait until someone gets it on the order paper and then, by golly, they’ll march into that Aye lobby right behind everyone else.
Nicola Sturgeon’s political skills are much-vaunted but in the end they amount to two: The ignorance of her friends and the haplessness of her enemies. Remainers down south are under the illusion that Sturgeon has spent the last two years fighting Brexit while Remainers up here treat her cynical equivocations as statements of principle.
Hypocrisy is the easiest charge to level in politics but, despite much evidence, Sturgeon’s opponents can’t manage to mount a prosecution. Calculated vagueness is cowardly but not without its uses.
As I said on this page last week, I thought Brexit was a terrible idea, so I voted Remain. I still think Brexit is a terrible idea, but a majority of my fellow citizens voted for it and so it must come to pass. This is a daring new proposition I like to call ‘democracy’.
One of the miserly pleasures of Brexit — you must take such things where you can get them — is watching Scottish Nationalists declaim the dangers of separatism. When you derive joy in the torments of others, it’s known as schadenfreude, except when it involves the leader of the SNP having to reproach ill-costed nationalist illusions, then it’s called Sturgeonfreude.
There was a powerful dose of Sturgeonfreude at the SNP conference earlier this month. During her set piece speech, Sturgeon struggled to delineate the difference between the two nationalisms that have come to define British politics. She assured delegates: ‘Brexit is about turning inwards, pulling up the drawbridge, retreating from the world. Independence is about being open, outward looking, aspiring to play our full part in the world around us.’
‘All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts,’ wrote George Orwell. ‘Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them.’
Thus must Sturgeon inveigh against all she stands for because, rather inconveniently, it turns out not to be all that different from what people like Jacob Rees-Mogg stand for. Yes, the aesthetics are divergent. The language at variance here and there. The Brexiteers and the Scottish Nationalists have their own distinct hang-ups about incomers.
Those are details. On the themes, they are simpatico. The people against the distant elites (but never the ones closer to home). Flags before facts. Stop talking your country down. Have some self-belief.
The Yes campaign has been allowed to rewrite itself as a plucky popular uprising when it was in fact the establishment campaign waged in the interests of the Scottish Government and the ruling Nationalist caste. Scottish separatists can tell themselves they are unlike English Brexiteers, that their efforts were civic and good-natured, but the rest of us were there. We remember what happened.
We remember the mobs that sought to intimidate the BBC. We remember the hate-etched screamers who surrounded any Unionist politician daring to speak in public. We remember how supporters of the Union were followed and filmed and cowed on their own streets. We remember it all and we remember it well because the EU referendum was for us a refresher course in nationalism.
In her comments to the People’s Vote march, Sturgeon said: ‘The Leave campaign has already gone down in history as one of the most disingenuous, dishonourable and downright dishonest electoral contests of modern times. Those responsible should be utterly ashamed of themselves.’
Who could disagree? Certainly not the woman who spearheaded an eleventh-hour effort to convince voters the (wholly devolved) NHS would be privatised if they voted No in 2014.
Nor the hardened political shin-kicker who, faced with an EU making unhelpful noises about a separate Scotland’s place in the community, warned: ‘There are 160,000 EU nationals from other states living in Scotland… If Scotland was outside Europe, they would lose the right to stay here.’
How quickly that little flash of nastiness has been forgiven and forgotten by the swooning commentariat.
The remote Remainer beamed down on Saturday’s rally: ‘Instead of a coherent vision and clear prospectus setting out what a vote to leave the EU would mean, all we got was waffle and that infamous lie on the side of a bus.’
It was reassuring to hear the First Minister take such a firm stance against ill-considered and deceptive blueprints. Someone should draw her attention to a classic of the genre, a 650-page proposal for starting a country that contained just one page on the financial circumstances of the new state. There was, however, space to promise untold oil wealth and prosperity, a cruel fiction carried into every sink estate in the country and sold as hope to desperate people. It was a lie not just infamous but inhuman.
Incidentally, the sequel — the Growth Commission report — was not debated at SNP conference because there is no debate to be had among party members. They can’t stand the thing. Andrew Wilson’s review into the economics of independence may have been wishful thinking with footnotes but the footnotes, with their grudging admission of fiscal pain, were too much for the angry dreamers. Believe in Scotland. #ProjectFear. We’ve had enough of experts.
Now Sturgeon is forced to rail against the Brexit threat to jobs and investment, knowing that, at some point down the line, she will ask the Scottish people to endorse the same threat under a different flag. She upbraids Downing Street for dragging Scotland out of the European single market, while herself yearning to hoick us out of the UK single market, even though our trade with the latter is worth almost four times that with the former. Brexit, she says, will hurt our universities, and it will, though not half as much as cutting off Scotland’s academics from the well of UK research council funding.
Perhaps Sturgeonfreude is an uncharitable response to all this. It can’t be easy having to go around denouncing yourself by implication but the First Minister has brought this on herself. When she lets rip on Brexit, she delights (most of) her grassroots but she underscores for everyone else how harmful and chaotic nationalism can be. Her every word will loom on the sidelines now, ready to haunt her when the time comes.
Independence supporters believe their cause is different. In a sense they’re right. Brexit may well sucker-punch the UK economy but independence would double the trauma for Scotland, a country in worse fiscal shape. Nationalists share the same illusions and they are undone by the same immutable truth: Economics will always get you in the end.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feature image by Scottish Government via Creative Commons 3.0.