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People’s Vote, but which People’s? Musings on the SNP’s position on a second Brexit Referendum

By Dovydas Kuliešas

Many of you know me as to say the least an ardent pro-European. Without getting too much into it let’s just say I support the Euro, a wage union, a fiscal capacity for the eurozone, more cooperation in foreign policy and a European army. To me the entire Brexit referendum is, as a colleague recently said, “based on lies and imperialist delusions”, a mass exercise in collective psychosis where the British electorate has not for the first time failed to consider the implications of poorly thought through, entirely self-serving and self-centred action.

But what I want to talk about today, specifically, is the push for a “People’s Vote”, a second Brexit referendum, championed by the Lib Dems, the Green Party of England and Wales, and some Labour politicians across the spectrum, including some members of Momentum, which is having a ballot on whether its members back such a referendum. There has been much agitation (primarily from outside the SNP, such as from former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale) to adopt a policy of pushing for one and even to head such a campaign. The argument on a base level may seem appealing to some: after all, could Nicola Sturgeon, in her position as leader of the UK’s third largest party and second-largest constituent country, not be a powerful contributing force to such a movement? And ultimately, should we not back any measure to stop Brexit, a destructive process that is not supported by the majority of the Scottish population?

In my view, however, these questions are the wrong ones. It’s not a matter of whether the SNP supports remaining in Europe – it is long-established party policy that we do. We have voted consistently against every measure the UK government sought to introduce as part of its process of exiting the EU. We voted against Article 50. Anyone suggesting the SNP leadership has not proved its commitment to Europe or to our membership and supporters, both of whom support remaining in Europe overwhelmingly, is being frankly ridiculous. This is a matter of whether we agree that a “People’s Vote” is the best solution for this problem.

The SNP, since the Brexit referendum, has consistently offered constructive solutions to the crisis that were entirely feasible compromises for the UK government to accept. This has included everything from a suggestion that the result of the first referendum has to be ignored as it did not carry a majority of constituent countries (a proposal we were arguing for before the referendum), to quite simply that the UK remain in the single market and customs union. This was bluntly ignored, so it is first of all unclear to me that anyone will listen to us even if we push really hard for a second Brexit referendum, in a very narrow timeframe that, as law and policy commentator David Allen Green has pointed out, is unlikely to give us a referendum before March, literally days before Brexit Day. We would have to cobble together an alliance of the Greens, Lib Dems, Plaid, and a Labour Party that currently doesn’t know what its stance on antisemitism is, let alone Brexit. The feasibility of this proposal is extremely low. Even, quite frankly, it is relatively possible certain member states of the EU would straight up veto giving the UK permission to revoke Article 50 – certain centrists and liberals in the UK are quite frankly unaware that right now the mood in some parts of Europe is no longer amicable amusement at the UK’s unique national quirks, but frustration bordering on hatred.

Leaving aside the realism of this idea, though – what guarantee can we have that this time Scotland’s voice will be respected? What guarantee can we have that our Remain vote will not be ignored again, that there will be legal provisions demanding approval from not just the electorate of the UK as a whole, but from the individual electorates of the constituent countries? “People’s Vote” campaigners need to understand that our frustration here in Scotland is not that the referendum went a different way in Scotland than it did in England. Our frustration is that we, the Scottish National Party at least, do not believe that England has a valid democratic right to make decisions for us simply because it has 30x more inhabitants. Unless there are provisions recognising this, it is irresponsible for us to put our name to a People’s Vote that doesn’t really care about what our people – not just UK citizens north of the border, but the many non-Commonwealth immigrants, such as yours truly, without British citizenship who were denied any sort of voice or vote – think.

But, you might ask, what if this is the last chance to stop Brexit? What if this is the best we can do before falling off the no deal cliff edge?
And that’s a difficult question. Perhaps it’s fair to say this: if by some miracle, by some sudden divine intervention onto St Jeremy’s thoughts, the Labour Party were to suddenly convert to the cause of the People’s Vote, and if they pushed for a vote in parliament on legislation enabling one, and if the Greens, Lib Dems, Plaid and SDLP all turned out to vote for it, and if there were enough pro-European Tory rebels to vote for it, basically, if the physically impossible happened, of course we should support such legislation. But until such a situation develops, which it will not, we can only consider championing the cause of a second UK-wide Brexit referendum if that second referendum respects any of the concerns we had that were bluntly ignored in the first. Otherwise it is a waste of our time, a red herring we absolutely cannot bait our people with.