As a bit of a politics nerd (yes, I admit it), I have been looking forward to the pageantry around this referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. There’s something about these political events – whatever they are ultimately about – which thrills and fascinates.
The debates! The interviews! The triumphs! The cock-ups! Staying up all night eating curry and watching David Dimbleby filling time as the results slowly filter in! I love it.
But this excitement has been spoilt somewhat by those killjoys in the SNP. Ever since the Scottish people’s own referendum on their national future in September 2014, those who campaigned for Scotland to leave the UK have made it their business to ruin not just this referendum, but all referenda. Never again can we sip from the cup of a national plebiscite, without tasting the taint of Scottish nationalism.
The simple fact is that the tactics of the SNP and their supporters have changed the way that referenda in this country are fought – and, in my view, not for the better.
But in order to understand how this affects the upcoming referendum on the EU, let us first briefly examine the two key faults at the core of the way the SNP operates.
The first is that the SNP and its party machinery are seemingly unable to view politicians and activists (of any party) as individuals. This is a topic I have touched on before. The SNP is the only party in the UK whose rules actively prohibit its MPs from speaking out against party policy. There can be no ‘rebels’; no dissenters; no brave individuals who put principles before career prospects to defy the party whip. Not in the SNP.
No, the gradually dwindling numbers of SNP MPs in the House Of Commons (we all know it started out as fifty-six, but two have already been suspended by the party…) speak with one voice on every issue. All of the (almost) one-and-a-half million Scottish voters who chose the SNP at the 2015 General Election might just as well be represented in Westminster by one single person, voting on all issues according to Nicola Sturgeon’s orders. (Maybe that’s something they should look into? It might at least save a bit on Parliamentary travel expenses.)
The second is the SNP’s unshakeable belief that the only thing which really matters is Scotland’s independence. Any other political problems are subsumed by this one great issue. Tax? Health? Education? Infrastructure? It doesn’t matter what the challenges facing these policy areas – all will be solved in the blink of an eye, come Independence Day. And, until independence, there is nothing that can be done about any of them, so they may as well go hang.
These two central conceits were underlined for me recently by a conversation I had with an SNP activist while a protest march against the Trident nuclear weapons system was occurring in London. I challenged something that he wrote on Twitter about the future of Trident; his response was, weirdly, about Scotland. Apparently, I was wrong about Trident because “I didn’t understand the Scottish people”; I tried to say that I wasn’t talking about Scotland as a nation, or as a people, but that I was responding to what he had posted on the topic of nuclear missiles – but he was unable to make the distinction.
Within a few Tweets, our Nationalist friend had successfully twisted my disagreeing with one specific thing he had said about Trident into me being somehow anti- the entire country of Scotland and its population. Because no issue, and no policy, can be discussed without it inexorably transforming into The Scottish Matter. And because ‘The Scottish People’ (whose ‘mindset’ I was assured I ‘didn’t understand’) are one homogeneous groupthinking bloc, rather than over five million individuals representing a plurality of opinion across all areas of policy. Such is the SNP mentality: everything is about Scotland, always – and all Scots think alike, on every issue.
So where does this leave our European plebiscite? A referendum in this country has traditionally transcended ordinary party politics. Faced with an issue deemed to be of such burning national importance that it is not enough for our elected representatives simply to vote on our behalves in Parliament, as is normal for most day-to-day political decisions, the usual rules and ways of operating are thrown out of the window. The party whips are suspended, and the campaign is not split along party lines like at a general election. Strange alliances are forged – fractious, often, but motivated. This is not ‘politics as usual’.
The SNP, it appears, cannot understand this. The fact that the ‘Better Together’ campaign – which pushed for, and eventually won, a majority ‘No’ vote in Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014 – was supported by all three of the major UK political parties has become a standard campaigning tool for the Nationalists. That Labour (traditionally the SNP’s main opposition in Scotland) had campaigned on this issue alongside the Conservatives makes them – apparently – ‘no better than the Tories’. (And what worse insult could there possibly be, for anyone whose understanding of politics reaches no further than the end of his own nose?!)
Once again, we see how the importance of the independence debate sweeps aside all other concerns, in the eyes of the SNP faithful – that Labour and the Tories agree on Scotland’s constitutional future makes them politically identical, no matter how many other major policy areas they vehemently disagree on. “Who cares if Labour and the Conservatives disagree on far more policies than they agree on?!”, say the SNP supporters; they agree on the only one which actually matters, so they can be lumped in together for all time.
(Of course this ignores even the basic maths of a referendum. With only two possible outcomes to choose from – ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ – there is bound to be some overlap in campaigning. There are simply not enough answers on the ballot paper for all the political parties involved to have one each, so you will, at some point, inevitably find yourself on the same side as politicians who are normally your opponents. But then, figures aren’t exactly the SNP’s strong point, are they…?)
“Well, what a short-sighted, obstinate, overly simplistic view of party politics!” you might very well be thinking now. Well, yes. Exactly. And yet this pervasive, barely-literate nonsense is now shaping the way our politicians are gearing up for the referendum on the European Union.
Keen not to be tarred with the same brush as their sworn political enemies, simply because they happen to feel the same about one point of policy, MPs now seem reticent to engage in the very cross-party campaigning which makes a referendum campaign different, and worth having at all. The fear of ‘sharing a platform’ with one’s usual political enemies – and the damage this could do to one’s own political image and career in the future – is distracting from the more pressing matter of actually campaigning for the result one believes is best for the country.
If this – or any – matter is of enough significance to be put to the population as a whole to vote on, rather than being left to representatives in the Commons and the Lords, is it not also important enough to put aside party political bickering and campaign alongside whoever happens to want the same outcome as you?
In a referendum such as this, you don’t get to choose your allies – you work with whoever happens to agree with you as to the best path for the country to take. And you should reasonably expect to do so without the threat of this being held up as a stain on your character in years to come, once the referendum is over and political life has gone back to normal.
If some cabinet ministers believe Britain should remain in the EU, while other ministers feel strongly we should leave, they should be free to campaign on whichever side of the argument they wish. It is not ‘weak’ of the Prime Minister to allow his ministers this freedom – and it is not very edifying to see politicians from other parties attempting to portray him as such, choosing petty political points-scoring over the matter at hand.
And if a politician from any party finds himself by some happenstance on the same side of this debate as a politician from another party (which – as I have said – is mathematically certain to happen, given the limited number of options for campaigning), this does not suddenly make the two politicians, or their two parties, indistinguishable from each other on all matters. It would be sheer folly to suppose it did. And yet, that has been the SNP’s take on things for over two years, now – and it is a view starting to permeate the mainstream national consciousness.
I can’t help but feel sad that the SNP’s small-minded, parochial mentality is being allowed to set the agenda for a national question about which many people feel very strongly – and as a result, we are all being denied a proper referendum campaign which truly cuts across, rather than entrenches, party lines.