“Let those in Westminster hear this”, declared Ian Blackford, “if contempt continues to be shown to the people of Scotland and our parliament, SNP MPs will not hesitate in causing maximum disruption to this Tory government’s agenda when and where Scotland needs us to.”
These words came from the SNP’s leader in the House of Commons last week at their annual party conference in Glasgow. They implied the possibility an almost kamikaze style attack from his party if a Brexit deal is tabled which is not in their interest. The party are seemingly preparing for battle over their eponymous issue: Scottish independence.
In a direct message to Theresa May and her cabinet, it was seen as a big move by Scotland’s largest party. As if Number 10 did not have enough to fret about when negotiating at Brussels, they now had to mull over a potential Scottish exit from the union. It is a stark reminder of what is at stake, where if May succumbs to a harder Brexit line by leaving the single market and the customs union, it may cause a rerun of the independence referendum four years ago.
Along with stating that “Scotland will not be treated as a second-class nation” and that leaving the EU would cause “turmoil and terrifying damage”, it nicely linked with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s view that the Brexit “shambles” could lead to another referendum.
However, in an interesting backtrack the leader of the largest party north of the border later called for ‘patience’ in her second and final speech to the conference. After her first, which stated that the 35 MPs from the party would back a new referendum on Brexit and then Blackford’s comments, this final address may have come across as anti-climactic to SNP supporters.
This should not be the case. Sturgeon knows how to play politics and a gentle reminder to the Prime Minister is all her party can realistically afford to do right now. Everyone knows how hard May’s job is, and the recent poll by the People’s Vote Campaign, which revealed that 89% of Scottish voters would back a referendum on the government’s deal, only adds further fuel to the fire. It has been four years since the previous independence referendum and the new circumstances offered by the Brexit negotiations have put a new vote clearly on the table.
Despite this, she is in some ways stuck between a rock and a hard place. As recent research by academics at Cardiff and Edinburgh has shown, 56 per cent of people who see themselves as Scottish (rather than British) believe Brexit is tolerable if it leads to a split from the union.
This is contrasted to recent polling which suggests that Brexit has made Scottish Remainers more supportive of independence as opposed to the Eurosceptics who are now even more willing to stay with the union. Sturgeon’s speech on vaguely committing to another EU referendum therefore is a minor gamble, as it helps push English Tory opinion back onto Scotland, but risks antagonising some party supporters.
Downing Street knows what the SNP are looking for and ever since the decision to leave the European Union they have provided a consistent line. Following the SNP leader’s comments this week, a spokesperson stated that the government have made their “position on this repeatedly clear”. They added that the 2014 referendum decision should be respected and that “now is not the time for a second independence referendum”.
Comments such as Blackford’s - that the party would resort to guerrilla tactics if the deal was not right for them - therefore look unnecessary. In attempting to shake the political core he has only managed to look abrasive.
His speech has shown some of the divisions within the SNP. They all agree where they want to go but it seems they disagree how to get there. While Sturgeon is offering the softer touch, Blackford is looking to heat up the debate. The SNP leader is correctly holding back the plan at the moment while Blackford is offering the views of the membership. It is right for Sturgeon to pour cold water on the SNP vision. It is a waiting game, and they should see where the cards fall. The party must bide their time.