Ben Wray: Don’t capitulate on ScotRef, Nicola: It’s time to learn the real lessons

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal head of policy Ben Wray says it would be a mistake to take indyref 2 off the table

SINCE the General Election result in Scotland has become evident, the UK press, Ruth Davidson, Kezia Dugdale and Willie Rennie have all been very clear – indyref 2 is dead. 

This is to be expected – they were always going to jump on any loss in SNP support to push their anti-independence narrative. More worrying is that this has not been refuted by the SNP leadership. 

Nicola Sturgeon has said that the possibility of a second referendum did have an effect on the 21 SNP losses and that she will consider in the coming days what she will do.

Read more – Robin McAlpine: Six reasons for indy supporters to feel cheerful

It would be a grave mistake on the part of the first minister if she were to capitulate to the unionist chorus and take an independence referendum off the table. The independence movement must make it clear to Sturgeon that we expect her to stick to the Scottish Government’s democratic mandate at such a crucial moment.

First off, a second referendum is not fundamentally why the SNP lost support – it lost support because it did nothing to motivate the Yes base. Sturgeon’s campaign was insipid and uninspiring, and the low turnout among Yes voters in 2017 is proof of this. 

The No side was more motivated, and clearly some Yes voters decided that Corbyn’s Labour offered more by way of hope than the SNP in this election.

The results bear this out. Turnout was down in Scotland by five per cent on 2015, whereas UK-wide it was up 2.5 per cent. The number of SNP votes was down 500,000, but Labour – which increased its number of Scottish MPs from one to seven – actually got less overall votes in 2017 than 2015.

A close reading of key independence-supporting areas in the west-coast of Scotland where Labour made gains provides us with conclusive evidence of the de-motivation of the core Yes base.

Sturgeon’s campaign was insipid and uninspiring, and the low turnout among Yes voters in 2017 is proof of this. 

In Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, turnout was down over 5,000 on 2015. Labour won with its vote only increasing by 2,000 when it was chasing an SNP majority of over 11,000. 

The big change was that the SNP vote fell by a huge 11,000. Labour won the seat by just over 1,500 votes – the lower turnout made the difference.

This picture played out in Glasgow North-East in even more stark terms. Turnout was down over 6,000. The Labour vote went up less than 1,000, but the SNP vote fell by more than 8,000. Labour won the seat by just over 200 votes.

Of course, in both constituencies there was also significant increased Tory support, but we are not talking about big numbers here – after all these are among the poorest and most Yes-voting constituencies in Scotland. 

They have not become anti-independence overnight. The west of Scotland was, and I believe still is, the bedrock of independence support, but it shouldn’t have been taken for granted by a campaign that seemed much more interested in appealing to Tory voters than Yes supporters.

A second referendum may look politically unfeasible right now, but that could change rapidly depending on how Brexit develops. It would be a colossal mistake to take indyref 2 off the table.

Indeed, since Brexit the SNP leadership has seemed vaguely ambivalent about the fact that a big chunk of its support voted leave in the EU referendum. Since then, the party has been excessively europhile, assuming wrongly that its core base would continue to support it regardless and hubristically thinking that the europhile middle-class who voted against independence in 2014 could now be the key converts to take Yes support over the line. 

This strategy never made sense based on an analysis of Scotland’s demographics, as there are not enough middle-income voters in Scotland to make the difference. It’s that failed strategy which should be dead now, not a second referendum itself.

Secondly, Sturgeon must keep sight of the bigger picture here. The UK state has now reached new depths of crisis. A lame-duck and humiliated prime minister in hawk to the DUP will now lead Brexit negotiations, with a resurgent left in England polarising the country even more. The situation is extremely volatile; voters are moving position quickly. 

A second referendum may look politically unfeasible right now, but that could change rapidly depending on how Brexit develops. It would be a colossal mistake to take indyref 2 off the table, and thus not keep her options open.

Polls show some movement against indyref 2 since its peak immediately after Brexit, but nothing that should warrant panicking. If Sturgeon gives away our one bit of leverage in these negotiations, Scotland will be at the mercy of the Tories.

Read more – Jim Sillars: Here's what the SNP and the Yes movement now need to do to build the indy case

Finally, Sturgeon should stick to the democratic mandate that she was elected on as first minister on in 2016, which was to pursue a second referendum if there was a concrete change in circumstances, such as Britain voting to leave the European Union. 

Many of us lent our vote to the SNP in that election for that very reason. Even in this election, Sturgeon said it was not about a second referendum because she already had a mandate, but that if the SNP won a majority of seats it would bolster her position. She did win a majority of seats, albeit narrowly.

This is no time for the first minister to wave the white flag. If she does, the SNP becomes irrelevant to the Brexit process at exactly the moment it needs to exert influence. 

The shock of the UK election is exactly because the crisis of the UK state is at a very deep stage. Independence is part of the answer to that crisis. Kicking a second referendum into the long grass now would be a disaster of historic proportions.

Picture courtesy of Scottish Government

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