Nicola Sturgeon today made her first significant intervention into the EU referendum debate with a speech hosted by the Resolution Foundation in Westminster.
It seems initially surprising that the Scottish First Minister would make her first major speech of the referendum campaign in London. But on reflection, it is a move which makes sense for a number of reasons.
At the most basic level, there is no more reliable way to ensure extensive national media coverage than coming to London. The same (essentially unsurprising) speech would have been unlikely to feature so prominently on the UK news agenda if delivered in Edinburgh.
And this illustrates a wider point about Nicola Sturgeon and the rationale for delivering this speech in Westminster. Last year’s General Election firmly established her as a politician with UK-wide profile. Rather than disappearing back to a Scottish political bubble and saying ‘see you in five years’, she has instead sought to consolidate this position. This, of course, is not because she seeks UK political office, but rather because being a player on the UK political scene helps Sturgeon to strengthen her grip on Scottish politics and keep her rivals closer to home firmly in the shade.
By way of illustration, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale this morning gave a major speech setting out her party’s welfare proposals for the upcoming Scottish elections. However this will clearly be playing second fiddle in tonight’s Scottish news bulletins and is unlikely to feature at all in UK-wide coverage.
As at the General Election when Sturgeon was able to position herself in the eyes of many as articulating a clearer alternative to the Conservatives’ austerity agenda than Ed Miliband, the EU referendum again presents the nationalists with an opportunity to present themselves as the ‘real opposition’. With Jeremy Corbyn widely regarded as a reluctant Europhile at best, Sturgeon has the opportunity to make a more full-throated, social democratic pro-EU case.
The question that many have been keen to pose of the SNP in relation to the EU referendum has been do they really want their own side to win?
The logic is pretty simple: if the UK votes to leave but Scotland wanted to stay, the material change is circumstances which the SNP have laid out for a second independence referendum would have been fulfilled. They would have a persuasive case for seeking such a referendum and there is polling to suggest that, in these circumstances, they would win this one.
A Machiavellian interpretation would therefore lead one to the conclusion that Ms Sturgeon’s true purpose in coming to London to make her speech is that she is hoping to antagonise enough of those voters who were horrified at the thought of her holding the balance of power in a hung Parliament into voting to Leave and thus creating the conditions for a Scottish vote for independence.
This is a train of thought that makes Boris Johnson’s ‘vote Leave to stay in’ strategy (now seemingly jettisoned) seem refreshingly straightforward. It is a theory which I would take with a hefty pinch of salt.
The reality is likely far more uncomplicated. Nicola Sturgeon does want the UK to vote to remain in the EU, even though this may run contrary to her own short-term interests in terms of securing a second independence referendum.
One reason is likely because of a belief that, if Scotland were to vote for independence from within the EU, it would be much simpler to negotiate Scotland’s continued membership than trying to get back in after the UK has voted to depart. Another is that the economic case for independence is easier to make when the rest of the UK is still in the EU club and the SNP can argue that free trade with England, Wales and Northern Ireland can continued unimpeded under EU rules.
Whatever the motivations – which may indeed be as simple as genuinely favouring the UK’s continued EU membership as an end in itself – Sturgeon has nailed her colours firmly to the mast today.