Robin McAlpine: The SNP and the EU referendum - it's not as simple as Sturgeon would like

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says the SNP's official position favouring EU membership is not necessarily reflected within the party

IT'S probably not often this can be said but I'm not sure Nicola Sturgeon has captured the mood of her party. If you only listen to the 'top lines' which emerge from the SNP's leadership you'd probably conclude that the SNP is an almost uncritical supporter of the EU. I find that hard to square with my experience.

I was talking to a senior SNP figure recently who had been campaigning with local activists for the Holyrood elections. Among the activists out that day there was little to no feeling of enthusiasm for a 'remain' vote but quite a bit of strong feeling for a 'leave' vote.

I know from another conversation that some figures associated with being fairly pro-EU in the party have been receiving quite a few emails from activists questioning that position.

I know from another conversation that some figures associated with being fairly pro-EU in the party have been receiving quite a few emails from activists questioning that position.

Indeed, one second hand conversation I had surprised me - I was told a well-known figure in the party I'd assumed to be a solid, unwavering Europhile had many more reservations than I'd have imagined.

I can say from first-hand experience that I've talked at quite a few SNP constituency and branch meetings and also at quite a lot of public meetings to which a lot of SNP members have come, and I simply don't hear people singing the praises of the EU.

My guess would be that on balance there is probably a reasonably safe majority in favour of a remain vote among the membership, but it seems to me that an awful lot of that majority are holding their noses.

And I also wonder how much of that majority has been shored-up or at least influenced by Nicola's lead on this. From the top of the SNP, from the beginning of this debate, there has been little room left for discussion. I'm not sure it's intentional, but I know people who feel a little like a three-line whip is in place.

There are all kinds of reasons why SNP activists are much more nuanced on this question than it might first appear. Possibly top of the list is the straightforward question of sovereignty. There are some consistent lines to be drawn from the kinds of things Michael Gove might say on British sovereignty to a lot of the arguments and sentiment from the Scottish referendum.

One second hand conversation I had surprised me - I was told a well-known figure in the party I'd assumed to be a solid, unwavering Europhile had many more reservations than I'd have imagined.

And it's a line which runs through an unusual part of the party, the long-term members and people seen to be particularly 'loyalist'. It chimes with issues which are dear to the hearts of some old hands like fishing and agriculture.

I know a couple of people who would never publicly challenge SNP leadership on any policy (and who've been party members for decades) who are voting Out. For them, it's a sovereignty thing.

The problem may even be bigger among the newer membership. Its a result of the anti-austerity, anti-corporate-capitalism instincts of quite a few people who got caught up in the referendum. They have a strong sense of justice not reflected in the current EU.

It's not hard to find that sense among pro-independence supporters. I spoke at a meeting recently in which the thing I said which brought the loudest and most heart-felt response was when I condemned (in quite strong terms) the way Greece had been treated by the EU and the Euro-bankers. These were largely SNP people.

My guess would be that on balance there is probably a reasonably safe majority in favour of a remain vote among the membership, but it seems to me that an awful lot of that majority are holding their noses.

The way the EU is trying to force the absolutely unacceptable TTIP through without democracy. The way the EU is watching disinterested as youth unemployment hits 40 per cent in its southern nations. The way it is accommodating some very worrying right wing (and racist) governments from its eastern edges. There is much not to like.

But if its an issue which has aspects which speak to a good chunk of the SNP 'old guard' and in parallel to a lot of the new members, it's also one which has elements that unite everyone.

The extent to which the pro-EU campaigns all sound awfully like Better Together (they're now routinely called 'project fear') causes discomfort. Lining up with precisely the same scaremongering banks, corporations and credit rating agencies who undermined independence at every step is not something many SNP supporters are likely to relish.

Then, of course, there's the other uniting feeling which can be summed up fairly succinctly as 'fucking Barroso'.

I know a couple of people who would never publicly challenge SNP leadership on any policy (and who've been party members for decades) who are voting Out. For them, it's a sovereignty thing.

Politicians may learn to shake off a sense of grievance resulting from things that happen in the heat of battle; activists don't. The way that unelected right-wing EU figures used jobs paid for in part by the taxes of pro-independence activists to do anything they could to intervene in domestic politics at the expense of those activists remains a sore point.

I was invited to speak in the European Parliament in December and I made the point that the EU can have Scotland as an inherently sympathetic internationalist nation or it can treat us like ill-behaved children - but not both. I was pretty vehement in arguing that if Euroscepticism is rising among supporters of independence, the EU has absolutely no-one to blame but itself.

And OK, I was in a committee room with rather a lot of Flemish, Catalonians and Basques - but I was not the only person who expressed anger at the way the EU treats stateless nations it deems 'not important' to its big, strategic, geopolitical games.

(As an aside, now that the psephologists are back proving via spreadsheets that Scotland really is just a smaller version of England, the one thing I've never heard from an SNP activist or politician is a explanation of their Euro-doubt predicated on immigration.)

From national sovereignty to anti-austerity to the treatment of small nations, there is rather a lot that might make you think that the SNP would be instinctively hostile to the EU.

The problem may even be bigger among the newer membership. Its a result of the anti-austerity, anti-corporate-capitalism instincts of quite a few people who got caught up in the referendum.

But I recognise that it isn't - or that a large part of it isn't. And I can set beside the preceding anecdotes of others where I've explained my own struggle with deciding how to vote in this referendum and it's met with horror by SNP people who just assume I'm an 'In' kind of guy.

This Euro-defaultism is partly the result of history and the strategic shift in the SNP during its 'independence in Europe' years, a strategy which hard-wired international collaborations into the SNP's DNA.

It's partly ancient history - Scotland has always been more connected to European culture than the UK as a whole and has had many fewer wars with nations from the continent. And perhaps above all, you can boil down quite a bit of SNP support for the EU as 'please don't leave us here on this rock, all alone with Boris'.

What I can't tell is whether the SNP leadership (and Nicola Sturgeon in particular) has used up a bit of political capital keeping some sceptics on side with this. And while I really don't think it is a big issue, I rather think she has.

Which seems a bit wasteful because the route through this appears pretty straightforward to me. The SNP probably can't become a Eurosceptic party (not least because positioning-wise it would nudge it a little too close to Ukip 'exclusionary nationalism' territory). But that doesn't need to mean it becomes a cheerleader for the European Central Bank. It just requires a little more nuance in presentation.

What I can't tell is whether the SNP leadership (and Nicola Sturgeon in particular) has used up a bit of political capital keeping some sceptics on side with this.

Nicola Sturgeon only has to talk about the EU as a great project which has lost its direction and needs major reform, but which is still worth fighting for. It is a position which would still sit at odds with many in the party but which would do more to make them feel like their views are being reflected - or at least understood.

Basically, this doesn't matter. Again, unless I'm only meeting an unrepresentative cross-section of the party, I don't think you'll find many SNP activists putting much effort into campaigning in the EU referendum one way or the other.

And when even the most loyal of party members don't seem to have a problem voting the opposite way to the party's leadership (it happens in private), there is probably no risk of schism or rancour.

Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that it would be a good idea if Nicola Sturgeon tempered the tone of her Euro-enthusiasm a bit, or at least qualified it with a much sharper recognition of just how serious the problems of the EU really are (and no-one should pretend they are minor).

Because small instances of a membership and a leadership being out of step don't mean much on their own, but they do have a tendency to accumulate. There are still residual wounds in the party over the ill-judged Nato u-turn and the way the leadership twisted arms to survive a vote they were losing. That was a massively bigger issue for many, but it just serves to remind us that memories are long and in politics sensitivities can run pretty deep.

I can't help but feel that it would be a good idea if Nicola Sturgeon tempered the tone of her Euro-enthusiasm a bit, or at least qualified it with a much sharper recognition of just how serious the problems of the EU really are.

There is no leader of any political party in Britain who is as popular among the membership as Nicola Sturgeon and probably no leader who, generally, is viewed as more 'like' the rank and file than the SNP boss. There is zero risk to that leader/member relationship in the foreseeable future.

But since cautionary notes are often worth at least considering, you could say the same (in bucketloads) about Tony Blair this far into his leadership of the Labour party. Of course Sturgeon is no Blair, but no-one running a country is entirely immune from losing touch.

So either the SNP leadership has made a judgement about the views of the party which I'm not sure are entirely sound or they have decided that the strategic imperative means that the views of the party should be downplayed.

I repeat, this time the disconnect doesn't matter one way or the other. But it might not be a habit to get into.

Picture courtesy of Robin McAlpine