Later this week Nicola Sturgeon will go head to head with Boris Johnson and other Brexiteers in one of the European referendum’s final televised debates.

It’s an arena in which the First Minister is likely to shine. Indeed, she owes her UK-wide profile to her performance in last year’s general election leaders’ debates. The SNP leader came across as a breath of fresh air, and will no doubt do so again.

It was most likely with those in mind that a “personal invitation” was extended to Ms Sturgeon to appear alongside Energy Secretary Amber Rudd and Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle on ITV this Thursday evening.

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This will mean the First Minister sharing a platform with, horror of horrors, a Tory, something a spin doctor attempted to neutralise by emphasizing that she would not be taking part as a formal representative of Stronger In Europe. Post-indyref tribalism requires the SNP to deny sharing platforms with Tories even when they demonstrably are.

Aside from what will undoubtedly be a polished performance on Thursday, and a lucid “In” speech from the First Minister in London a few months ago, however, when the history of this EU referendum campaign is written the SNP’s contribution will be striking by its incoherence, grudging nature and often counter-productive tactics.

It’s incoherent because for all the claims to the contrary it remains unclear why the SNP so strongly supports one Union (the EU) and not the other (the UK). Partly it jars because for so long the words “Union” and “Unionism” have been treated pejoratively, synonymous with Conservatism, imperialism and lots of other regressive “isms”, thus the sudden change of tone in praising the European Union – and there-fore European Unionism – sounds insincere.


Then there are the arguments. For years the UK has been lambasted as broken beyond repair because it imposes austerity on parts of the country, is undemocratic (hereditary monarch good; appointed House of Lords bad) and unequal when it comes to distribution of wealth, yet all those same problems apply in spades in an EU context – think Greece, opaque Brussels institutions and the gulf between northern and southern member states – yet the SNP says it’s worth fighting to change that particular Un-ion from within.

When this inconsistency is flagged up Nationalists respond in one of two ways, either by stressing that the EU and UK are “very different” sorts of Union (which is true, although it doesn’t really address the point), or erecting a convenient straw man. On Newsnight a couple of weeks ago the First Minister opted for the second, telling Kirsty Wark that the “argument that being part of the EU is inconsistent with being an in-dependent country is nonsense”.

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No one, of course, has really made that argument, but there the SNP counter-argument begins and ends, a simple, indyref-style assertion that a perfectly legitimate observation isn’t correct, but no detailed attempt to actually explain why. But then such is the condition of Scottish political discourse in this ostensibly more engaged era.

The same inconsistency, meanwhile, extends to referendum discourse more generally, with the SNP increasing its “friendly fire” towards other parts of the Remain camp in recent weeks. This mainly centres on the “Project Fear” narrative, transferred wholesale from the independence referendum as another useful piece of cover that avoids the need to grapple with inconvenient things like an overwhelming economic consensus that Brexit would have a negative impact on the Scottish and UK economy.


So on a trip to London the other week, the First Minister lambasted the Treasury for producing “overblown” analysis showing precisely that, and while it almost certainly was exaggerated (‘tis the nature of referendum campaigns), it’s difficult to see what this achieved beyond producing a day’s worth of stories about splits in the Remain camp. Furthermore, Ms Sturgeon said such “fear-based campaigning” could start “to insult people’s intelligence” and therefore have a negative effect.

Laying aside the bizarre spectacle of the losing side in the last referendum lecturing their own side in this one about campaigning techniques, one would think that after critiquing the Treasury’s figures it might be incumbent upon the Scottish Govern-ment to produce an alternative analysis, but then that would be a triumph of hope over expectation. Indeed, Scottish ministers haven’t produced a single document at-tempting to quantify the impact of Brexit on Scotland, presumably through fear of being accused of, well, scaremongering.

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And what of the SNP’s alternative campaigning style? Why the sort of relentlessly, upbeat positivity deploying during the independence referendum, of course, though presumably not the decidedly negative fear-based argument about the NHS being privatised following a No vote (in another echo of the indyref, Vote Leave has also begun weaponising the health service). “I’m much more interested in the reasons to stay in the European Union,” added the First Minister, “the positive reasons”.

These included being part of a large single market (although why the EU market is being elevated above the UK one isn’t really clear), and social and employment protections, which Ms Sturgeon is correct to identify as some of the better arguments to Remain, while more recently she pointed to the Erasmus programme as another benefit of EU membership “worth getting out and voting for”. Erasmus, however, is open to non-EU countries (Turkey, for example, is a member), although no one from Vote Leave appears to realize that.

Then, of course, there’s the question of a second independence referendum, on which the SNP is continuing to oscillate wildly between arguing that Brexit would constitute the “material change” necessary or talking it down, as Scottish Government minister Humza Yousaf did most recently. Alex Salmond, by contrast, is the model of consistency, telling anyone who’ll listen that Scotland will be independent in two years if there’s a Brexit vote. It’s dog whistle stuff, of course, most likely intended to keep the impatient wing of the party happy.

In a recent newspaper column, however, the former First Minister did make an interesting point, observing that the EU referendum debate wasn’t really about Scotland (or Wales, or Northern Ireland). Rather it was England in “ferment”, “about immigration, its sense of self, about her place in the world, about the total vacuum of her po-litical leadership”. Europe, concluded Salmond, “is merely the easiest and latest way to kick the establishment”.

A little overstated perhaps, but this referendum is very Anglo-centric, a delayed corrective to the inevitably Scoto-centric nature of that in 2014, but it also betrays an-other point, that on Europe (as on fracking, education and a host of other issues) the SNP is merely responding to events rather than setting its own agenda. This naturally leads to nervousness, and the result are lots of flat political notes, not least all of the above.

Intellectual contortions are practically a way of life for the SNP these days, but as the EU referendum approaches its wretched denouement the frantic attempt to square various circles is just particularly obvious. And as in 2014, its relentless “positivity” is, in fact, deeply negative.