Of the many interesting and not so interesting things that Nicola Sturgeon said on Monday when she announced at great length that she wants another referendum on Scottish independence was the following. She no longer seeks full membership of the EU. Sturgeon emphasised that she seeks single market membership, a position that is a retreat on the long-established and fanatically pro-EU SNP policy. For decades the SNP has jumped up and down shouting that it would definitely be in the EU. Now, it moves away from that policy.
When Fiona Hyslop, a member of Sturgeon’s cabinet, went on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday morning, she was very careful not to talk about rejoining the EU and stressed single market membership: “I would be absolutely negligent in my duties as a government minister were I not to pursue the interests of the Scottish people,” she said. “The single market membership is absolutely crucial for jobs, for services, for people and for our protection. And that’s what we will continue to do.”
This shift of position from Sturgeon was obscured in the immediate aftermath over her speech by the sight of panicking Unionists and pompous Nationalists running around, the latter seeking attention, the former just wanting the constitutional fixation to stop.
But it is nonetheless very significant. The SNP’s new position appears to be this:
It is an outrage that Scotland is being dragged out of the EU! That means there must be a referendum on Scotland very soon!
Does that mean you will then seek full membership of the EU, that body you keep saying you are furious about leaving?
Er… no. That will not be necessary. Something a bit like Norway – in the EEA, and EFTA – should be fine. Let’s call it the “mibbe Norway” option.
On one level this is clever, because it suggests compromise and sounds reasonably coherent. And it squares the circle. Unfortunately, in the middle of the circle is a very large hole. Scotland would break away from the UK, where 64% of Scottish exports go, and instead seek to negotiate Norway-style status while establishing a new currency, because the rest of the UK would not give Scotland a banking union to underpin its financial system. It just would not undertake to guarantee Scottish financial institutions. There would also have to be a hardish to hard border, and Whitehall and the English would take a dim view of Scotland trying to poach companies and take counter action. Rapidly, what sounds like a reasonable compromise turns into quite a mess.
Why do this? Is it really better than being in the highly successful single market that is the UK?
Well, the answer is that Sturgeon’s shift reveals the fragility of the SNP position. As many as a third of SNP voters voted for Brexit in 2016, on the basis of fears about immigration, dislike of wasteful spending and a disinclination to send powers back to Brussels post-independence. EU membership would defeat the point of Scottish independence before it had even had an opportunity to get going. Those voters may still want independence, but they are not enthusiasts for the EU.
Another group of Scottish voters – EU fanatics who want back in to the EU – are now being told that the alleged outrage they are so angry about, that requires a referendum, does not extend to actually rejoining the EU. One might say “fine”, one step at a time, or there must then be another referendum in Scotland on EU membership, as a champagne socialist Nat friend of mine suggested. Really? The line is: have another referendum on Scottish independence and not rejoin the EU, but then have yet another referendum on joining the EU, perhaps. This is not a clear and robust position on which to fight, or it is only clear to obsessives. Meanwhile, Scottish education is in a shocking state.
For all the hype and fear, the SNP position is simply not as strong as the events or coverage of the last 24 hours suggest. The SNP while making a lot of noise is in retreat on EU membership.