In the post-Brexit political landscape, experience is more important than ever
Referendums cause chaos and the UK’s political leaders must walk a very fine line or be ruined
Seagull - photo credit: Tilemahos Efthimiadis
I once met a fisherman in a pub, who told me a story which may or may not be true. When his boat went out to sea, he said, the seagulls would swoop in and try to steal bait. They had grown more and more confident over time, eventually flying in so close you could snatch them out of the air.
The crew used to actually do that, apparently, and then stuff them into a small hold. The initiation for new recruits on the boat was being shoved into the hold and left there. You would sit in the dark, in a small cupboard, while dozens of seagulls flapped and screamed around your head. As training goes, it seems intense, but maybe it was character building.
It may not be true, but as a political journalist covering the constitutional debate, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear the story resonates with me on some level. Which is not to say it is fair to compare being a political journalist with being locked in a cupboard on a boat in the dark with a bunch of hungry seagulls. Clearly, being a journalist in a referendum is much worse.
While referendums are obviously an effective way to boost democratic engagement, there is also no doubting that they have a tendency to cause chaos, and to make politics weird in the process. The rest of the UK is just learning this, though Scotland, stuck in the midst of simultaneous, overlapping debates over Brexit and independence, has experienced it for some time. Politicians, like trainee fishermen, have to learn quickly to survive the pandemonium.
And so Nicola Sturgeon, who has more experience of referendum chaos than most, continues to face questions over a possible second vote on independence, with both Alex Salmond and Angus MacNeil predicting such an event occurring in 2018.
For her part, Sturgeon has stuck to variations on her initial answer, made in the hours after the EU vote, that a second referendum is “highly likely”.
Yet still, some remain unconvinced it will happen. The received wisdom here is that the party has been using a second indyref as a threat to help win concessions from Westminster, and that Sturgeon would not consider actually calling one until she sees a decisive shift in the polls. Some say she is too cautious to risk it. And anyway, Brexit may well have weakened the case for independence.
Yet, in navigating the post-Brexit landscape, Sturgeon holds two advantages over both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.
The first is that, unlike either of her rivals, she is defending a position she actually believes in – which is much more than just a luxury in politics.
The Prime Minister, famously, campaigned for Remain, and is now in the unenviable position of enacting a constitutional change that, just seven months ago, she said would cause major damage to the UK economy.
Corbyn, meanwhile, opposed the EEC and consistently voted against closer integration – including voting against the Lisbon Treaty – before seemingly being pushed into campaigning for Remain. His pronouncements on avoiding a hard Brexit now seem hollow, at best.
The second advantage Sturgeon holds is experience. Even setting aside the fact she has been leader of her party longer – and deputy before that – she has been through the aftermath of 2014, and learned from it.
In this context, it makes sense to hold out as long as possible in calling for another vote. Referendums cause chaos, and it is likely the chaos from last June’s vote is only just beginning.
The UK’s political leaders must walk a very fine line or be ruined, and, amid all the screaming, it may be worth waiting for either May or Corbyn to do something stupid.
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