The EU and the 2014 Independence referendum
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): To what extent was the prospect that the UK might leave the EU a factor in the 2014 independence referendum?
Stephen Gethins (SG): Back in the independence referendum, what was really interesting was the fact that Europe wasn’t something that was disputed. It was seen by both sides, unionist and nationalist, as being a good thing. There was nobody saying, ‘You should stay in the UK because then we can leave Europe’, or, ‘We should become independent because then we can leave Europe’. Both sides were arguing that it was a positive thing, which may have framed why Scotland voted the way it did in 2016.
I think the most interesting thing about it was the way that those who were on the No side said that those of us who were pro-independence were talking nonsense when we said that our place in Europe was under any kind of threat whatsoever, because it was clearly something that was important to voters.
UKICE: Were you involved at any stage in the sections on the EU in the Scottish Government’s independence white paper?
SG: I had been a special adviser from 2009 to the start of 2013, and before I was a special adviser I worked in European institutions and Scotland House, and so I came in with that expertise.
So, yes, I fed into the process, but I actually left at the start of 2013 to stand in the European elections, because I am somebody who, although I come from a very pro-European party, am particularly pro-European even for my own party.
I had started helping with the drafting of some of the European stuff that subsequently went into the white paper, but a lot of it was reasonably uncontentious compared to other things. If you think about debates around the economy, currency, and all these other areas, the European question was much less contentious at that time.
UKICE: Were you pretty relaxed about the prospect of an independent Scotland gaining admission to the EU?
SG: Yes. What was really interesting was that other European countries are neutral when it comes to the idea of Scottish independence, because it is seen as an internal matter, although some of them were a little bit more vocal before 2014 in a way they wouldn’t be now.
But from speaking to people internally in the institutions and member states, they were pretty comfortable with where things would go. The Spanish were reasonably comfortable about Scotland joining the EU too.
There is a question around the process, of course, and about institution building, how long it might take, whether you would have to give up some of the concessions that that UK had at that point, which was something that was discussed. Though of course Ireland, for instance, hasn’t given up some of those concessions.
But we were always pretty comfortable about Scotland gaining membership of the EU and meeting the Acquis Communautaire. It was just the process. Even speaking to people in London, I think some of the more sensible people offline were saying, ‘Look, if Scotland goes for independence, then we want you guys to be an ally’.
I was much more comfortable about what would happen the day after a referendum than what happened before a referendum. Also, a lot of the questions that dominated the Brexit debate, about what Brexit might look like, weren’t relevant to the case for independence. With independence there was agreement across government, the party and the wider independence movement, that if Scotland became independent it would be seeking membership of the European Union. We didn’t have the same splits that we have seen since 2016 among those who backed Leave.
UKICE: But you weren’t one of those people who thought that Scotland could simply transition seamlessly from being in the European Union, courtesy of the United Kingdom, to being a member without the accession process?
SG: Yes, sort of a Greenland, leaving and then coming back in. As we have seen in East Germany, Cyprus, with Denmark with Greenland, for example, the EU is an intensely political beast. It is not so much what the treaties say, it is what the member states say, and we have seen that in other examples. I think that is something that was often missed.
People will talk about, ‘Well, ‘x’ section talks about ‘y’ in such-and-such treaty’. But, actually, the EU has survived and is able to bring together now 27 member states because it is an organisation that tries to be as flexible as possible.
Now, I don’t think things would have been easy, and, as Neil MacCormick termed the phrase, ‘internal enlargement’ wouldn’t have been as straightforward maybe as some people think.
But I think there was the possibility that Scotland would have remained inside, depending on how long you took for independence negotiations, because it would have been more difficult for Scotland to step outside the European Union, and therefore outside the remit of the European Court, and then step back in again.
That is obviously a moot point now, but I think people didn’t always fully understand the willingness in the European institutions to try and find a political solution to tricky problems. The answer would have lain in Westminster rather than in Brussels, in my opinion.
UKICE:. Did you put any effort into trying to ensure that the European Union sounded positive about this? Because you had interventions from people like (José Manuel) Barroso that weren’t all that helpful.
SG: Yes. It was something that we didn’t put as much effort into as we should have. I went to Brussels with Alex (Salmond) a couple of times. He was always reasonably well received as Scottish First Minister, but Europe wasn’t as important as other issues were.
In retrospect, we probably didn’t invest as much time as we should have done in terms of relationships with other European countries, and our relationships with the European institutions. Although Scotland House in Brussels has been very good, with a very good team of people who work there both at official level and otherwise, it was probably understaffed, and didn’t have the same clout as other substate offices did. It probably needed more investment, both in terms of finance and personnel but, also, in terms of political time. I think that was probably a mistake last time round, actually.
The EU referendum
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): What was it like entering Parliament as one of those 56 SNP MPs. It must have been quite a triumphant entry in some ways, but what was the reception you got like?
Stephen Gethins: It was kind of weird. In fairness to Angus Robertson, who was group leader at the time, our colleagues bent over backwards, and the parliamentary staff were just amazing, because I don’t think any group had gone from 6 MPs to 56 MPs. 56 out of 59; I don’t think you had seen that kind of change, since Sinn Féin swept the board in 1919, in terms of a party going from a very low number to a very high number, and Sinn Féin never bothered taking their seats.
At the start it was really exciting for us all, because you had just come on the back of an independence referendum where folk were devastated by the loss. This is something people felt passionate about, you had lost, and then, when you saw that uptick in party membership, that uptick in the polls, there was huge excitement amongst the group.
As somebody who had some experience of politics before I went in, more so than most of my colleagues, I remember special advisers and others saying, ‘Do you think there is anybody who is going to be difficult in the group?’ I remember saying to them, ‘The difficulty is not now, when we are all excited. The difficulty comes, had it been a five-year Parliament, when you are two or three years in, the commute is boring, your casework is getting really heavy, and you get into the day-to-day, as with any job’.
There was a huge amount of excitement and real goodwill in that group towards one another at the very start. It was an exciting and fun place to be.
UKICE: You became the SNP’s Europe spokesperson. Did the Government consult with you at all about its plans for the referendum, or the organisation of the referendum?
SG: Nothing, which really surprised me. Brendan O’Hara and I were the first of our new group to do our maiden speeches. We did our maiden speech on the first day of the Queen’s Speech, which was quite unusual, but I did it because the Europe Referendum Bill was the first one to go through, and I was expected to take that through Parliament.
They didn’t consult with us at all. We put down a number of amendments. For example, votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, votes for EU nationals, but, also, we were trying to get some kind of agreement between the constituent parts of the UK.
David Lidington, who was Europe Minister at the time, was great and he was one of the few ministers who, in my experience, was very good at reaching out to other parliamentarians. But there was no meaningful engagement with the SNP, as the third biggest group in Parliament, or with the Scottish Government, on whom this would, of course, have a very significant impact.
UKICE: Did you raise the need for agreement amongst the nations in parliamentary debates?
SG: Yes, we even put down amendments on it, saying that there would need to be agreement between the constituent parts of the UK, which were obviously defeated.
We weren’t just doing this from nowhere. One of the things that people forget about the SNP as a large group is, if you like, our leadership. My boss doesn’t sit in Westminster. My boss is sat in Holyrood as the First Minister, which is the reverse for colleagues in other political parties in Holyrood, who would often have to consult with their bosses at Westminster. My boss was in Edinburgh.
We consulted with them regularly. We were also able to make use of the resource of checking amendments so that they were legally robust with the Scottish Government’s lawyers, or we could run them past ministers, but we put down robust amendments to that EU Referendum Bill.
I remember it because it was pretty stressful, because I had only been in Parliament about six weeks, and then you are leading on a bill of some significant consequence at that stage. So, these were amendments were put down at the time, but with limited support.
UKICE: Did you feel that your membership of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee afforded you influence that you wouldn’t otherwise have had?
SG: In my opinion, being on the Foreign Affairs Committee gave me more access to officials and more influence than being the spokesperson of the third-party. Being the third-party spokesperson effectively meant that you always had a place to stand up and make a point, and you could pick up on certain issues, but because I was on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, I had access to ambassadors and officials, other embassies were interested in what you had to say, and I also had access to the resource of the experts who inform the committees, who are a huge and really overlooked part of parliamentary work.
I actually think the Committee allowed me to be more informed and actually allowed me to be more influential in a way than, say, being that third-party spokesperson. It was really weird, I always thought it would be the other way round. It was one of the reasons why I retained my Foreign Affairs Committee membership throughout my time in Parliament, even when I took on board the foreign affairs portfolio, because it was such a useful thing to be able to do, and it was such a massive resource. It also helped to build relationships with colleagues in other political parties that became so important.
UKICE: When do you seriously start campaigning for Remain?
SG: The SNP has been criticised for this, but we put down a statutory instrument so that the date of the referendum could not be anything less than three months after the Scottish, Welsh, and London Assembly elections.
It was really difficult to campaign. You had the Scottish parliamentary elections in the first Thursday of May, and you had the EU referendum about six weeks later. It is really difficult to campaign for the election or the referendum after the one that you are about to have. It is really difficult to say, ‘Forget about the next vote you have got. Think about the vote that you have got after that’.
The Scottish parliamentary elections were the priority for the SNP. It was the party of government; it was the incumbent. The Scottish parliamentary elections are the most important in the electoral cycle to my party, and you could say the same for Welsh Labour, for London Labour, for the Northern Irish parties. It was really difficult to get any focus on campaigning for Remain until after those elections had been and gone. As you know, people, your activists, are knackered after elections. They throw everything into it; they work really hard.
I can remember there were the Scottish parliamentary elections, and then you had to say to everybody the day after, ‘That is great, and we have done well, and now we have to focus on Remain’.
To have those elections six weeks before was, in my opinion, irresponsible. I think it was one of the reasons for the defeat, and it could all have been avoided if the government had accepted our SI so that there was that reasonable gap between the devolved elections and the referendum date.
UKICE: How closely did you or your party work with Britain Stronger in Europe, and how effective were you in shaping their campaign in Scotland? What did you make of Britain Stronger in Europe?
SG: I have got a huge amount of respect for an awful lot of the people who worked there, they are good people, but we didn’t associate ourselves with their campaign. The SNP ran its own campaign.
One of my huge concerns, and I flagged this to them before the referendum, was they relied on project fear. They said, ‘Well, this is something that worked during the Scottish referendum campaign’, and it didn’t work in the Scottish referendum. If you look at the Scottish referendum campaign, the ‘Yes’ campaign went from sometimes 28%, 29% in the polls, to having made up almost 20 points by referendum day. If you look at it, after George Osborne’s speech, ‘You can’t have the pound, it will all be awful’, the independence campaign really took off. In our experience, trying to frighten people into a vote wasn’t the right way to go about it.
I know that wasn’t exclusively that campaign’s tactic, I get that, but it was our opinion that their tactics just weren’t going to work in Scotland. We cooperated with them, we spoke to them, we were on the same side, but we thought that running our own campaign was the most effective way of doing that.
You have to remember, at that time, and it remains the case now, that the SNP had just come out of having won almost 50% in the election, 56 out of 59 seats, and having won a third term in the Scottish government in the 2016 elections. Our brand was quite powerful. Also, we knew that campaigning in Scotland is different; it is why you have Scottish Labour, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish National Party. I think different messages worked.
It is not for me to say how they should have campaigned elsewhere, but I felt that some of their core messages, especially those who wanted to have a project fear style campaign, weren’t the best tactic to win people over. The Leave campaign had a lot less ground to make up in the opinion polls than the Yes campaign did in the 2014 referendum.
UKICE: I don’t know if you have come across tAilsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones’s book Englishness. One of the really interesting arguments they make in their book is, given that Leave was so heavily dependent on English voters, the Remain campaign was excessively Scottish.
So, you had all sorts of Scottish voices in the debates, and that was a tactical mistake, because you were actually trying to appeal to English voters first and foremost to change their minds. Do you think there is any truth in that?
SG: I think there probably is. One thing that we are seeing in the UK – and it is one of the reasons why support for independence has grown – is this divergence in politics and the realignment of politics. Not just between Westminster and Holyrood, but across the United Kingdom. People talk about the Hartlepool by-election and what that meant, they talk about the 2019 election and the so-called red wall, blue wall, or whatever you want to call it,, but there was a realignment in Scottish politics post-2014.
I remember saying to colleagues in Labour and the Conservatives at Westminster, ‘Referendums change politics. They change them fundamentally’, and everybody saying, ‘That might have been the case with independence, but it won’t be the case with Europe, which is just the one issue’. But we are seeing it now, that it has changed English politics.
So, in retrospect, yes, because clearly there was a lack of understanding with vast swathes of the English electorate, but I think it would have taken quite the political insight, to have seen those trends at the time. We were starting to see them, but I am not sure anybody quite understood the realignment that was taking place at that time.
UKICE: It must have been a weird campaign in Scotland in a way, because the political leaders in Scotland were all pro-Remain. Your opponents tended to be retired politicians or the odd businessman, so it must have been such a strange dynamic, debating this in Scotland?
SG: This was a huge issue for broadcasters, because if you are a broadcaster and there is a referendum coming up, you need to find a fair share of Remainers and Leavers. I remember, as somebody who was the Europe spokesperson for my party and deputy director of the SNP’s Remain campaign, I was getting plenty of media coverage, but not the same amount as you might have expected, because for every one of me in the SNP, there were colleagues in the Scottish Parliament who were Scottish Labour, Scottish Liberal Democrats, Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Green Party, who could fulfil the role of making the case for Remain.
You didn’t have a Leaver and, actually, in the pre-2016 Scottish Parliament, there was one solitary MSP who thought leaving the EU was a good idea. I think it was Margaret Mitchell.
That made it very difficult. It also made it difficult from a Scottish perspective to have a really specific Scottish debate and discussion over the future of the European Union as well.
To a certain extent, there was a feeling that the action was taking place down in England, and that was really frustrating, because people were not talking about the impact on Scotland. In the same way, when it was difficult to find any Leavers outwith the DUP in Northern Ireland, you weren’t having a debate about the implications that this would have for the different constituent parts of the UK to the extent that we could have done. It was seen as very much an internal debate down in England.
Even if you burrow further down than that, we never quite lifted our eyes from the internal debate that was taking place in the Conservative Party.
UKICE: You were deputy director of the SNP’s Remain campaign-
SG: It was me as deputy director sitting in the Westminster parliament, and Humza Yousaf, who I think was Europe Minister at the time, sitting in the Scottish Parliament.
We very much fought our own campaign. We collaborated and worked with colleagues from other political parties. I think a lot of that was to do with the fact that we didn’t think the messaging that was coming out of some of the Remain campaigns was quite the message that we wanted to be giving, nor the one that would work most effectively.
UKICE: Can you remember where you were on the night of the referendum?
SG: I spent the day campaigning in Scotland, in my constituency. Then I got the flight down at about 8 or 9 o’clock at night, because I was on the shift for doing the telly or radio.
I remember being in the lounge in Edinburgh. I am not going to say who it was, but I met a very senior strategist from another political party who had been in government for years, who told me in no uncertain terms that there was no way that Leave were going to win, because he had looked at it and they did not have the electoral coalition to deliver a referendum win. That was at 8pm in the lounge of Edinburgh Airport.
From 10pm, I nipped into Westminster to dump my bag, stick on a shirt and tie, and then started doing my rounds. First of all, I can remember being on the radio, chatting to David Campbell Bannerman at about 11pm, and him saying, ‘We have done better than we expected, but we are going to lose’, and me saying to him ‘Yes, but we need to have a more informed conversation about membership of the EU’.
When I started really seeing it go wrong, and when I thought, ‘We are going to lose this’, I was in the BBC studios in Millbank with Kate Hoey, about to go on, and that is when the Sunderland result and Newcastle results came through.
At that stage, my shift came to an end at 2am, and I thought it looked like we are going to lose. I went home, and I thought, ‘I need to get some kip because I’m on the Green in the morning’. I went home and I got 3 hours’ sleep, got back up at 6am. But it was when I was sitting in that room with Kate Hoey, and the results from Sunderland and Newcastle came on, which showed the Remain campaign losing by a bit too much in Sunderland and winning by a bit too little in Newcastle.
UKICE: How did you react? Did you immediately see this as an opportunity in terms of the Scottish independence debate?
SG: You have to remember, the SNP has often been criticised by its opponents over the years of not being pro-European enough, and then after the referendum of being too pro-European. The SNP is a pro-European party, for as long as I have been a member.
We were gutted. Nicola (Sturgeon) has talked about how she felt the day after the referendum, and she said, ‘I need to think about this because this is the way that unionists may feel on the day that Scotland votes for independence. We have to remember we were gutted’.
I remember the group meetings afterwards. Everybody was gutted, and, interestingly, Angus Robertson, who was leader at the time, said to the group months before the referendum, ‘If anyone in this group doesn’t feel comfortable campaigning for Remain, say so. Other parties have done it. It is a referendum’. There were a couple of people who I thought might, and nobody did. Everybody was really comfortable with campaigning for Remain.
Remember, for some people, if you are part of the UK but also part of the European Union, it makes the UK that little bit more liveable with, if you like, because you are also part of that bigger European project.
That had gone, and so we were outside the EU, not because of any mass popular movement, but because of the right-wing part of the Conservative Party that had never been at home with Scottish politics. We knew this wasn’t good. We knew that this was the UK taking a very different tack, and I think that was reflected the next morning.
I was on College Green again, doing the media rounds, and I felt so down until Nicola came out and spoke. I thought she was very clear about the disappointment and very clear about what needed to be done next, because I don’t think any of us knew what this would mean for the independence movement, for the SNP, but we thought this was bad news overall.
Politics after the referendum, 2016-2017
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): In those first few days after the UK’s vote to leave, did you come to the conclusion that this would make independence easier or harder?
Stephen Gethins (SG): More likely but harder in a way.
UKICE: When we interviewed John Bercow, he told a story about the first time David Davis stood up in the House of Commons to talk about Brexit, and your reaction was to say, ‘Is this it?’. Were you surprised in the summer of 2016 by the fact that the UK Government had no immediate plan?
SG: It was total chaos. When I said, ‘Is that it?’, it was for a number of reasons. Firstly, we were becoming used to it. David Cameron had gone off for his big renegotiation, and I had had to respond to it for us.
There was nothing in the renegotiation. What became abundantly was how little understanding there was about the EU, the way it worked and the European institutions. The lack of understanding about the EU meant that everything was wallpaper. You were turning up, and it was all about the headline rather than the details of what was in the treaty.
David Cameron went over, didn’t really understand the EU, hadn’t surrounded himself with people who understood the EU, with some very notable exceptions of your David Lidingtons and Alistair Burts and others. But he didn’t understand that there was nothing there.
Similarly, David Davis came in thinking it would be a breeze. David was one of the few ministers who used to meet with us regularly. He would speak to us, but I am sorry to say that their understanding of the European Union was very poor across the chamber. They didn’t quite understand the EU. If you don’t understand the EU, if you don’t understand the treaties, it is very difficult to form a cohesive negotiating position. That is why they didn’t come back with very much. They didn’t know what they wanted.
Also, in terms of the customs union and single market, in November 2017, Boris Johnson was up in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee as Foreign Secretary. Tom Tugendhat told me to be quiet because I kept asking him, ‘Do you want to be a member of the Single Market or customs union? Do you have an aim?’, and he wouldn’t answer me.
I think that was because they couldn’t agree amongst themselves whether or not they wanted to be members of the Single Market or the customs union. At that stage, a year and a half on from the referendum, I think that they had stumbled into a Leave vote, and they didn’t know what to do with it. As Antony Blinken put it, it was like the dog that caught the car, didn’t know what to do, and then the car reverses, runs over the dog, and it is all a total mess.
UKICE: When you were producing the Scotland’s Place in Europe document, did you have much in the way of interaction with the UK Government about that?
SG: That was a Scottish Government initiative. We had input, and I was lucky that Michael Russell and I have a really good working relationship, so we would talk regularly. His special adviser on Europe, Ewan Crawford, was brilliant, so I could be on the phone to him on a regular basis so we could feed into it.
It was presented to the UK Government, but they were so extraordinarily dismissive. If you look at the way that the document was written, it was written with the aim of there being some kind of compromise with the UK Government. Scotland’s Place in Europe has the option of leaving the EU but remaining part of the Single Market and the customs union, but it also sets out the areas that you could devolve to Scotland, I think business regulation and immigration, which would allow Scotland to remain part of the Single Market and a customs union.
I think Scottish ministers and the SNP were keen from day one that, if we were to leave the EU, then we saw it as we always have done – Scotland should be an independent member state in its own right. Outside of that, we sought for the UK to have the closest possible relationship with the European Union and we were trying to salvage as much of that relationship as you possibly could.
Scotland’s Place in Europe was sent to David Davis, and I raised this with David on a few occasions, and he did not respond to it for months. I think it was about six months later that he eventually said no to it, and he hadn’t read it or considered it.
I know there is a bit of politics, and they will not be driven by what the SNP and the Scottish Government think, but that was a democratically elected government of Scotland who had produced a compromise. I think you needed to at least be seen to engage with a compromise document, and I never felt they even engaged with that process. That makes the politics for unionists, those who are pro-union, much more difficult as well.
UKICE: Cynically, in the back of your mind, when you got rebuffed like that, you must have been thinking, ‘This is going to play well to the base at home’?
SG: It is, but here is one thing about politics. I think John Curtice talks about how one in five No voters from 2014 are now moving to Yes, with Brexit driving pro-independence, but what people forget when they talk about it now is that, in the aftermath of 2016, peopled wanted responsibility. It is one of the reasons why Theresa May initially was seen quite positively by some people, because they thought, ‘Well, at least there is a grown-up in the room’.
I think the Scottish Government took a grown-up, sensible approach to seeking some kind of compromise. Yes, you might talk about political expediency, but, actually, it is what people expected.
One of the things that all politicians do, which is the most valuable thing, is go out and knock on doors and get a feel for the way people feel about things. I can remember in 2016/2017, folk wanted to find a sensible way out of this mess. There was very much an appetite for that in 2016, which is why I think the Scottish Government were right to put across a compromise.
UKICE: Is it fair to say then that the 2017 general election caught the SNP by surprise? Why was it a relatively – stressing relatively – less successful campaign for the SNP in 2017?
SG: First of all, it is the third best election that the SNP has ever fought. But you are right; it caught everybody by surprise. I hear stories from private secretaries of ministers watching the television and being caught utterly off guard the day the election was announced. When you speak to civil servants, they say all their ministers were caught totally off guard with no preparation.
The reason it came as such a big surprise was that the Conservatives had a majority. If you have got a majority, I don’t think there are really many examples of Conservative or other governments going for elections after less than two years. It wasn’t as if this was three, three and a half, four years down the line. This was two years down the line. I think it caught everybody by surprise.
I think the other thing you have to remember, when Nicola announced she was going for the independence referendum, was that it had been in the SNP manifesto in 2016, before the referendum.
Also, she was talking about a 2018/2019 timescale, which would have meant about 2 years from the announcement to build the case, to talk about the case. Here, you were going from an announcement into a general election in just a matter of weeks. I think everybody was caught on the hop a wee bit.
The SNP did well, but I think part of the problem was that going out and trying to get people out to the polls was difficult.
There had been talk about a snap election, but nobody took it seriously. Actually, one thing that happens at Westminster, as you will know, are the conversations you have with colleagues who are friends across the political divide. They were telling us in full sincerity, ‘She wouldn’t be as daft as to go for a general election’, but of course she was, and I suppose the rest is history.
UKICE: After the election the First Minister pressed pause on the independence referendum. How much unhappiness did this cause in the party?
SG: I think in the immediate aftermath of the election, there was a recognition that it was a hung parliament. So, although we had fewer MPs, we had more influence. Ironically, if you look back at the past three elections, though it was the SNP’s poorest election result since 2015, ironically it was the one where the parties had most influence on politics in terms of what happened and the stuff we were engaged with, to the day the 2019 election was called.
You have to remember the SNP is there because people believe in independence. Nicola is there because she believes in independence. When it was becoming clearer that the Scottish Government wasn’t being listened to it and, also, people were watching the telly and seeing the utter mayhem unfold at Westminster – because, remember, the BBC Parliament channel in 2017, 2018, 2019 was one of the most watched TV channels in the UK – people were watching this in a way I don’t think they watched parliamentary procedure since or before.
And the full calamity of Brexit was unfolding and independence was ticking back up in the polls, there was obviously more pressure building for an independence referendum, but part of the problem was that you need to work with and get agreement with the Westminster Government for that referendum. The feeling seemed to be that at Westminster they have already got enough on their plate.
So, yes, there was pressure, but the SNP is a lot more cohesive than I think a lot of people sometimes give it credit for. The reason is some Westminster commentators will pay attention to Scottish politics – the Alex Salmond trial, a vote of a no confidence, the First Minister – but we have weeks and months when day-to-day stuff goes on in Scotland that is almost ignored at Westminster. I am not blaming anybody for ignoring it, but there is a deeper dynamic and driver in Scottish politics and the independence movement than you see in the headlines and the news at night, or than you see on Twitter.
Twitter is the worst for this, because you get people who think Nicola Sturgeon is doing a dreadful job, who are pro-independence, who are conflated on Twitter but utterly unrepresentative of the party and the wider Yes movement, which is one of the reasons. For example, you see the Alba Party get 1.7% in the May election, but there is a huge amount of attention paid to them.
The party was reasonably united and the Yes movement was reasonably united. That is reflected in the polling numbers for the SNP, the support for the Scottish Government and, also, the support for independence ticking up during that period as well.
UKICE: Were you at all concerned by the confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), in terms of what that might mean for the future of the union? Specifically from a Scottish nationalist perspective, when this partnership was announced, did it provoke any particular fears?
SG: It did. To be honest, one of our biggest concerns was how it impacted Northern Ireland. It is not for me to comment on Northern Irish politics. How people vote in Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland. But the loss of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party from Parliament, leaving only the wonderful Sylvia Hermon, meant that you had a loss of diversity in Parliament.
The DUP were incredibly excited in 2017. I can remember one of the DUP MPs walking up to the SNP benches and asking us how many bridges to Northern Ireland were wanted because, of course, they thought they were going to be able to wring lots and lots out of the UK Government. I suspect he was doing so only half in jest as well.
I think the thing that concerned us more was that minority government was seen to work in the Scottish Parliament with a cross-party basis; you have only had one majority government in the Scottish Parliament. It was the culture at Westminster that did not allow for a minority government to work that concerned us more than anything else.
The DUP connection was concerning, but, actually, it was the failure of the Conservative Party to engage with a minority Parliament in a meaningful way. I thought the DUP – and I don’t blame them for this –had the Tories over the barrel, because if the Tories had ever sought agreement with the Liberals, Labour, the SNP, it would have meant that the DUP were not always the go-to party. The DUP knew that they were the go-to party, which put them in a huge position of strength. I thought that that it is not how minority government works elsewhere in these islands or elsewhere in Europe, and that was a great failure and weakness.
The Brexit Gridlock, 2017-2019
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): When did you first become aware of the movement towards the creation of the People’s Vote campaign?
Stephen Gethins (SG): We engaged with it quite early on. It wasn’t always easy for us to back that second referendum. You have to remember that there was a view within some of my colleagues in the SNP that Scotland had already voted to Remain in the European Union, so the view of some was, ‘Why should we vote again? We have already voted to remain in the EU’. The more pragmatic view took hold.
Also, at that stage the Scottish Government had put down their compromise case to the UK Government in the Scotland’s Place in Europe document. There was a feeling that, while that compromise was on the table, you had to let that process play out, because at that stage the UK government hadn’t given the Scottish Government a yes or a no.
From the early stages after the 2017 election, I would be speaking to people like Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry and various others. I can remember getting a hard time from Ming Campbell for not having signed up to it when we had both turned up because the Queen was in to hand over some colours, but at that stage we needed to let the compromise play out, because we had offered the compromise. Also, there was a feeling among some that Scotland had already voted to remain in the European Union.
UKICE: To what extent in the back of your mind was there a thought that, ‘If we can do a second referendum on this, it paves the way for a second referendum on what we really want’?
SG: I think you had to be careful to not conflate two things. I don’t think we should call the second independence referendum ‘Indy ref two’, because it is an entirely changed set of circumstances with an entirely changed set of arguments, whereas the People’s Vote campaign was explicitly as a direct result of that referendum. You need a referendum to overturn another referendum.
It was a concern to a certain extent, but I think that these were two very, very different proposals. This was all about sovereignty, of course. Even if you had had your people’s vote and the UK had voted to remain in the EU, there was nothing to stop a general election and then a UK government coming in and having a third referendum, because that is where the decision lay.
This is a question about where the decision lies in terms of independence. You could see where in the media there was some overlap, but, actually, these are two intellectually distinct questions and distinct issues.
UKICE: When was the decision made to move to an explicitly pro-referendum position? Were there opponents of that step in the party?
SG: There was. There was a discussion. There were some in the party who wanted to move more quickly; there were some in the party who didn’t want to move as quickly. Everybody thought of the SNP group as a very, very united group, and it was compared to all the other groups, but that is not to say that we didn’t have some very robust group meetings and group conversations about these issues.
You have to remember that as well as the group discussions, the interaction with the Scottish Government was really important. I think the decision was made as soon as a compromise was off the table, and it looked like the UK Government were going down a line of doing a deal without consulting the Scottish Government. At that stage, it was inevitable that the SNP would back the People’s Vote campaign, because not only are we a fundamentally pro-European party, but pro-Europeans vote us into office. Not one SNP MP was having the hard time that other MPs were having, because we all had overwhelmingly pro-Remain constituencies.
It was always about best-case scenario, remaining in the EU, worst-case scenario, probably where we are now. How do we best serve Scotland’s pro-European sentiment? Although people might say, ‘Well, of course you should have backed a people’s vote’, it is not always quite as simple as that.
UKICE: How closely, if at all, did the SNP group in Westminster work with the Labour leadership?
SG: We tried. Keir Starmer and I would talk a lot. I got on really well with Keir. The problem was Jeremy Corbyn, because here you had a leader who did not understand the EU, and was not pro-European. I can remember some of the meetings that we had with him were constructive, but he didn’t really engage on the issue until about 2019 in a really serious way.
I can remember arranging a meeting when Nicola Sturgeon came down to meet up with Jeremy Corbyn. There was a lot of talk about biscuits and there was a lot of talk about allotments, but it was difficult to get a really constructive conversation about what should happen next.
Like Nicola or not, she is a deeply serious politician. Remember, she is First Minister, so if she takes a day out of her schedule to travel down to London to do that, you are having to wrest her away from Parliament and domestic politics to come down to Westminster. So, I think there was a degree of frustration.
Keir was a good colleague. He was full and frank and good to deal with. Jeremy Corbyn was a nightmare.
UKICE:Why did you think it was important to keep revoke on the table?
SG: Because this was a mess. You have to remember that- and you see it where we are now, with people losing their jobs, with food shortages and all that kind of stuff- that the moment that you triggered Article 50, you had those 2 years. I know you got the extensions, but in politics you have a responsibility to the people you serve to do as little harm as you possibly can.
There was no agreement. Not because of Brussels, but because there was not agreement within the Conservative Party. That meant that you were looking at no deal, plunging the UK into a place whereby there would be food shortages, people would lose their jobs, peace in Northern Ireland would be threatened, and I think that is why it was the responsible thing to do, to always have revoke on the table.
From a political point of view, it was also a much easier thing from an SNP perspective, because if you had revoked Article 50, the political fallout in Scotland would have been reasonably inconsequential because most people thought it was a good idea. To be fair, we were in a slightly easier political place than our colleagues in the Labour Party or some of the Conservatives.
UKICE: When the real Parliamentary action started to take place at the end of 2018 and into 2019, how much did you have to coordinate what you were doing with the leadership in Edinburgh, or did things move at such a pace that you found yourself being quite autonomous?
SG: We were pretty much in the same space. I am sure Michael Russell won’t mind me saying, but I have got a fairly good idea of what is amenable to the Scottish Government and what is not, and I think he had a fairly good idea of what was amenable to me and Ian Blackford and what wasn’t.
Things were happening really, really quickly, and I can remember Patrick Grady and I sitting, and there was one amendment, I think from Lucy Powell, which came in. We hadn’t been warned about it. It came up, and we had five minutes to decide whether or not to vote for it. So, there were decisions like that, where you were having to take decisions on the bench, but colleagues in Holyrood understood that and we were talking a lot.
Also, during the really serious discussions with what I call the Kingsway Group, because we were meeting in an office near there in the run-up to the Letwin amendment, Ian and I were able to make decisions because we had a fairly good idea where our leadership was. We were talking to Nicola regularly, talking to Mike regularly, talking to Ewan Crawford regularly.
One thing that people don’t always get about the SNP is that Scotland is a smaller country, so people know each other. The SNP may be dominant in Scotland, but it is a smaller party, so we know each other in a way and have a relationship with each other in a way the Conservative Parliamentary Party doesn’t, because it is that much bigger. Just a human thing.
These are people that I have known for 25 years, since I was a student. So, you have that relationship that maybe others don’t.
We had a lot of autonomy and, of course, you wanted to consult with the group as well, but we were able to just pick up the phone to each other and make those decisions. I think there was a lot of trust there as well.
UKICE: Moving on to Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister, and that spring and summer of 2019, did you find that within the party there was greater appetite for co-operation with Labour when confronted with Boris Johnson?
SG: Yes. I can remember when the government of national unity stuff was touted, I think in August 2019, During the 2014 referendum, the SNP was told it was telling scare stories when it said we would be out the EU and Boris Johnson would be Prime Minister at some stage. This was something that we knew was horrifying to Scottish voters. Boris Johnson is deeply unpopular. It is why the Scottish Conservatives had their ‘Operation Arse’, or whatever it was called, to try and stop him from becoming Prime Minister.
I remember speaking to friends who were Scottish Conservatives, ministers, and they were horrified. There were people in the Conservative Party who saw Boris Johnson to be as radical an option in their party as members of the Labour Party saw Jeremy Corbyn. They were really seen as two peas in a pod in that regard, very radical, coming from radical wings of their parties.
We knew that this was not good news in terms of keeping Scotland as close as we possibly could to the rest of Europe. Our view was that he is somebody that needs to be stopped at all costs, and the damage that he will do needs to be stopped at all costs.
UKICE: What was your role in the cross-party discussions? What was it like, trying to coordinate across parties?
SG: I got asked by the party to lead on this, because I was Brexit spokesperson in the run-up to 2017, and then I was foreign affairs and Brexit spokesperson.
First of all, I want to say from a geeky point of view, as somebody who has followed politics, it is dead weird, sitting in a room with Philip Hammond, Keir Starmer, Hilary Benn, all these people that you have watched on the telly for years, and then you are sitting at a human equal level negotiating with them. On a human level, these were decent, thoughtful people.
I have to say, my job was a lot easier than it was for others round that table, because I had a unified pro-European party. I could speak to my party leader, either at Westminster or Holyrood, any time I wanted to, and we were all on the same page. For us, it was a reasonably straightforward thing to do.
Also, there was reasonable cohesion in the group. Not always, but there was reasonable cohesion around our ambitions, which, again, was to retain as close a relationship with Europe as we possibly could.
Being in a party that is numerically smaller and from a part of the UK that is smaller helped. I had a very clear idea of where my party leadership was and what would be acceptable and not acceptable, and I wasn’t subjected to the kind of abuse and having to sneak in and out of meetings that others were.
UKICE: Do you think that a government of national unity ever could have happened?
SG: I think we hoped it might work, because we were in a real crisis point in that summer of 2019. The biggest problem was that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t foresee anybody else being leader except him, which is not much in the way of compromise, incidentally. Everybody has got to compromise, so you are in the second biggest party and you are saying, ‘I shall do this, but only if I get to be Prime Minister’. Corbyn was not the unifying figure that perhaps he liked to think he was.
I think that it could have been a goer. We said we would have backed Corbyn as an alternative to Boris Johnson, because anything was better than that, but the biggest problem – and this came down to why he didn’t get compromise – was the culture of politics that is undertaken at Westminster. This winner takes all approach, that has led us to the problems that we have got today.
It was the integral problem in the run-up to the referendum, and it was the problem in finding a compromise, because people do not negotiate in the same ways as I can remember governments at Holyrood having to do so to get budgets through. It is just not there. The culture at Westminster would have had to shift in a way it just hasn’t done for decades.
UKICE: What did you eventually think of the deal Boris Johnson signed? In retrospect, do you think his task was made easier by the fact that the Opposition was focused on the prospect of no deal rather than on a thin deal?
SG: I think everybody was focused on no deal, and I have heard criticism of the opposition. You have got to remember that in opposition, we were trying to retain closer links with Europe, because we thought that was how you make this better. The Conservative Party, for years, were being driven by Conservative ultras who saw any kind of relationship with the European Union as being some kind of betrayal.
Opposition is there to oppose and to scrutinise. It is not there to bail the government out. So, yes, you can look back in retrospect and say, ‘Well, that would have been better than no deal’. Pretty much everything would have been better than no deal, which was what. at the time we were really focused on The Kingsway Group and the work that we did was successful: we passed that legislation to stop no deal. This all ultimately led to the general election, which was the only way of overturning it.
At the time, we were trying to offset real bad damage. I represented a constituency with the biggest industries; the higher education industry and research ,the food and drink industry. Fundamentally, I was there to protect as many jobs as I possibly could for my constituents, and I don’t think that any of the Tory deals did that compared to the compromises that were offered.
The 2019 general election and the future
UKICE: When it comes to the general election of 2019, can you just briefly talk us through the decision to support that election and what you think of it in retrospect? Did it come as a shock to you that cooperation between Remain and like-minded parties just disintegrated so quickly?
SG: Certainly in Scotland, I saw that there were odds and ends. I was defending a seat against the Liberal Democrats. The very thought that the Liberal Democrats were going to roll over, in a seat that they fancied winning, and say, ‘Actually, we will give a Stephen a bye’…
I don’t blame them for that. I have got good friends and colleagues in that party, and politics is a blood sport.
I will let you in on a secret, which is that I argued against a general election in the group meeting. I remember sitting in the car park of Balgove Larder, near St Andrews. as a leaders’ meeting took place between Ian Blackford, Jeremy Corbyn, and Jo Swinson. I had constituency meetings in there at the time.
I was standing outside on the phone to Corbyn, Swinson, (Caroline) Lucas, and Ian (Blackford), when we decided not to go for the vote of no confidence, to keep them in power.
Eventually, when that general election was agreed, the SNP group meeting had literally just met and agreed to say, ‘We will not support a general election’. We emerged from that group meeting to find out that Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet had just agreed to a general election. You were probably within about an hour, had meetings been at different times, of no general election having taken place. When the general election happened, it was at the last possible moment.
At the time, from an SNP perspective, we knew we were going to beat the Tories north of the border. Boris was unpopular; Brexit was unpopular. That panned out. In some ways, you could say the SNP shouldn’t have gone for it, because Labour wasn’t going to beat the Tories south of the border. I don’t think the SNP can be blamed for Labour being hopeless at fighting elections south of the border, but that is where we are.
In retrospect, would you rather have a minority Tory government or a majority Tory government? Of course, you would rather have a minority Tory government, but at that stage, the only way of blocking Brexit seemed to be a general election. There did not seem to be any other way.
How would history have panned out? If you had waited until Christmas, you would have gone slam bang into a pandemic in January/February 2020, and history may have all been very, very different, but that is not the history that we had.
UKICE: You would also have had the Salmond trial in January. I mean that must have been part of your thinking.
SG: It was to a certain extent, but we saw our canvass results. The trial was there, there is no point denying that. It was something that was very difficult for us all, especially people like me who had worked with Alex, known Alex, and worked with Nicola and knew Nicola and others, but I don’t think it was the determining factor.
It wasn’t having an impact on our opinion poll numbers. Another thing is there are times when you have opinion polls and you have reactions on the doors. Sometimes your opinion poll numbers are great, but the reaction on the doors isn’t great, and politicians take both things into account. It is not an exact science, but at that time reaction on the doors and opinion polls were great. Politically, from a selfish perspective, there could not have been a better time to have an election.
I think the Salmond trial thing, again, is one of these things where the Westminster bubble dips in and out of Scottish politics. By December 2019, you had had two and a half years of utter chaos at Westminster, when fundamentally the SNP’s argument is, ‘We should be able to govern ourselves better than this system’. The system of Westminster had not shown itself perhaps in its best light for the two and a half years that had preceded that general election.
UKICE: How important was Brexit in that general election for Scottish voters?
SG: Really important. The main splits for people in Scottish politics increasingly is independence and pro-union, but at that election there was also a Remain-Leave split which, inevitably for the SNP, is going to be a good thing, because there are a lot more Remainers in Scotland than there are Leavers.
The Brexit referendum was extraordinarily important, but independence was important as well. Independence is always important, which is why that continued refusal to say that there isn’t a mandate is something that I don’t think is sustainable. People are voting for the SNP because the SNP believes in independence, and the SNP won another election.
That desire for independence has been driven by Brexit. So, increasingly, I don’t think you can separate the two of them out.
UKICE: Do you agree with the claim that you hear a lot of, which is that thanks to Brexit, Boris Johnson and a number of factors, the political case for a referendum has got stronger, but the barriers to winning have become higher because of the nature of Brexit and the border issue?
SG: I wouldn’t agree with it entirely, but I would agree with it in part. I would say that Brexit has made independence much more desirable and much more likely because of the growth in support and, also, the fact that people now have a real choice between two unions. Because remember, people in Scotland equate themselves with the Irish and other nations. Even if you are pro-union, you consider yourselves a nation. You are equating and measuring your livelihoods with people in Ireland, in Denmark, in Finland.
But, of course, there are people in the UK – I am not one of them – who value the idea of being part of the UK, that bigger entity. In 2014, you were able to have both. You were able to have EU membership, feel pro-European, have it as a watchdog against Westminster, but also be part of the UK as well. Now, you have a very distinct choice.
You are right in the sense that things are a bit more difficult, because we always wanted England and Wales to remain in the Single Market, because it is good for business in Scotland. If you are outside the Single Market, a customs union, you are taking a bad economic decision. Now, that is damaging for Scotland, there is no question about it, but do you pursue the bad economic decision that your neighbours are taking?
I think that there is a challenge around the border. I think it is something the Scottish Government will need to be working on and considering, and it was a challenge that wasn’t there in 2014. On the other hand, I would not underestimate the clarity of a picture that you have given people.
One of the things that you want to do in politics is give people a very clear choice. The difference between Brexit Britain and an independent Scotland is much clearer now than it was in 2014, and we have seen it has tipped a lot of people over the edge. Not just on the basis of economics, but sometimes on the basis of identity, because you no longer identify with the kind of country the UK has become and is becoming.
This is a radical Boris Johnson government. There is no such thing as a status quo any more. This is a radical government, which will mean significant changes, even before the next general election to the UK.