The SNP’s thinly disguised independence agenda

It has become something of a cliché in political commentary to say that the great dividing line in Scottish politics is now between Unionist and Nationalist, not left and right. It’s why the once-toxic Scottish Conservatives are (comparatively) thriving north of the border and why Scottish Labour – the least convincing Unionists ever – are facing a wipeout at the General Election in June. The economy, education, housing, the NHS: all are now playing second fiddle to the ultimate constitutional question, little more than sources of ammunition for Unionists and Nationalists to marshal their respective causes. Fail to recognise this, and you fail to understand Scottish politics.

Little wonder, then, that Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that the Scottish National Party’s election campaign is nothing to do with a second independence referendum has been met with near-universal mockery. Yes, the very same Nicola Sturgeon who has spent every waking moment since last year’s Brexit vote agitating for indyref2. Her mandate for indyref2, she says, ‘was secured in last year’s Holyrood election’. This election, in the words of the party’s Europe spokesman, is all about protecting Scotland’s interests in the face of the Tories’ ‘disastrous hard Brexit’.

The first problem with this is that the supposed existence of a mandate for indyref2 is entirely inconsistent with the SNP’s strategy since the Brexit vote. Its approach has been as follows: threaten indyref2 if the Brexit negotiations aren’t precisely to the SNP’s requirements; bait the government into adopting a hardline response; then use the response to drum up support for independence. If there really were a nationwide groundswell of support for indyref2, then why would this relentless agitation be necessary?

In truth, as recent polling shows, support for both indyref2, independence and the SNP have all dropped. Which explains why the SNP is trying to make the election about Brexit, not independence. Though the extent to which Scotland is a pro-EU haven is overstated, it remains the case that Brexit – and, in particular, Brexit without Single Market access – is unpopular in Scotland. The Union, on the other hand, is popular. The SNP’s hope is that pro-EU Unionists will vote for the them in a (most likely, futile) attempt to rein in the British electorate’s Brexit-shaped plea for more democratic control. They will then claim, as they have claimed in previous elections, that their support is a mandate for a referendum after all.

We can be sure of the SNP’s real game, and not for the first time, thanks to former SNP leader Alex Salmond. While the rest of the SNP top brass have unconvincingly tried to decouple the election and independence, Salmond, speaking on LBS, couldn’t keep a straight face: Scots, he said, will ‘decide on a range of things’, including ‘whether to back our parliament’s right to hold another referendum’.

Ultimately, the strategy won’t wash. Thanks to Sturgeon’s protracted use of indyref2 as a tool to mould Brexit to her liking, nobody, least of all Unionists, will buy the idea that this election has nothing at all to do with independence. Scots will recognise Sturgeon’s comments for what they are – another naked attempt to manufacture support for independence – and, on 8 June, they will vote accordingly.

Blair Spowart is a writer and campaigner.

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