Meet The Hushed Band Of SNP Members Who Are Desperate To Leave The EU
"The party is run with an iron grip – you must toe the party line," said one rebel SNP member, who's planning on going against his party and voting Leave.
Four weeks before Scotland's referendum on independence in 2014, the debate had gripped the nation to such a degree that you'd be afraid to open your kitchen cupboard in case an activist sprang out to hand you a campaign leaflet. But, with the referendum on EU membership less than 30 days away, it seems Scotland couldn't care less.
South of the border, battle buses are criss-crossing the country, set-piece speeches are taking place every day, and the UK government has been split in two. In Scotland, a symbolic vote on EU membership took place in parliament on Thursday with only eight out of 129 MSPs opting for Leave – and one later admitted he had merely pressed the wrong voting button at his desk.
As for Scotland's dominant party, the SNP, not one of its parliamentarians – either in Holyrood or Westminster – has given even the slightest hint they're not going to draw anything but an enthusiastic cross in the Remain box next month. But, as with many issues within the seemingly homogenous SNP, whose politicians aren't allowed to disagree with each other in public, the story isn't quite that simple.
Around a third of SNP voters are said to have not been persuaded by leader Nicola Sturgeon on one of her central policies – that Scotland, and the UK, should remain in Europe. Bearing in mind the party's dominance and popularity, that will be the largest anti-EU block of voters in Scotland. Analysis from The Guardian suggests that around a quarter of a million SNP voters could end up voting Leave next month, if polls are to be believed.
Some Leave sources are adamant that includes a handful of SNP MPs and MSPs who simply aren't allowed to speak up. Gary Parker, a pro-independence activist who is leading a small anti-EU group called SNP GO – an unofficial branch of the UK-wide Grassroots Out campaign – insists that he has had private conversations with MPs and MSPs who want to leave the EU, but that any dissent in the party is quickly shouted down.
"MPs and MSPs have attended meetings with us and they’ve said that they’re scared – they won't admit it because they can't step out of line with the party," claimed Parker, whom former SNP leader Jim Sillars, one of the most prominent Leave voices in Scotland, asked to take the reins of the SNP GO campaign.
"One of my team pitched a Scottish Vote Leave stand in one of the SNP’s normal places and they went mental. The convener of the branch said, 'You’re out the party, you’re finished.' I’m friends with [SNP MP] Corri Wilson ... and I said to her ‘Tell me I didn’t hear this right’ and she said she’d sort it, which she did. But the abuse he got from his friends who he’s [previously] campaigned with was absolutely vicious."
A source in the official Scottish Vote Leave campaign, which set up another group called SNP for Leave earlier this week, insists one SNP MSP is privately backing them and revealed that one SNP member in Aberdeen feels so strongly about leaving the EU that he’s given office space to them in an attempt help the ailing Scottish campaign along in the final few weeks.
Among SNP MSPs, Euroscepticism is often dismissed as being a bit too "Tory" for the party to take seriously. During Thursday’s vote in the Scottish parliament, left-leaning Labour MSP Neil Findlay spoke out about his Euroscepticism – although he is still undecided about how to vote – and SNP transport minister Humza Yousaf mocked him on Twitter for only receiving applause from Conservatives.
But those SNP supporters who do want to leave the European Union insist it's a logical follow-on from wanting Scotland to be independent. Why try to take back power from London, they ask, but be perfectly happy to campaign for some power to remain in the hands of anonymous politicians and bureaucrats even further away in Brussels and Strasbourg?
"I'm not a member but a supporter and voter of [the SNP] all my life," said 51-year-old fisherman Peter Willox from Fraserburgh, who's backing Leave. "I'm a true nationalist, and nationalism has no place in federalism – [the SNP] shout about independence but are only offering federalism, and they campaigned on the back of the fishing vote only to give us no support.
"I know councillors in the party and it's run with an iron grip – you must toe the party line or fear deselection. That's why none are coming out in support, only [former SNP leader] Jim Sillars. I know very many SNP supporters who are voting Leave as they cannot understand the party's stance – it's an oxymoron to the party's core belief [of] independence."
Parker, the SNP GO leader, agreed, saying: "I really don’t like the whole thing that [the SNP] don’t accept London rule, which I don’t want either – I think everyone should be governed locally – but it sounds anti-English if you say you disagree with London but accept Brussels quite happily. I don’t get that, it doesn’t make sense, and I question the MSPs and leaders who are just completely closed on this."
John Sweeney, a taxi driver from Pollokshields in Glasgow who joined the SNP just after the referendum in September 2014, is concerned about how hard Scottish nationalists may have to fight in the future to extract Scotland from the European Union.
"I'm sure our forefathers in Scotland over 300 years ago thought going into partnership with England was a good idea, and it may have been at the time, [but] lo and behold it is no longer a partnership, it's a Westminster takeover," said Sweeney. "I know the whole idea of a European Union sounds warm and fuzzy, but I don't want future generations to campaign for Scotland's independence from an imperialist United States of Europe.
"The leadership of the party have got to play it safely and they are probably just giving Cameron enough rope. The majority of Stay supporters within the party don't want to be embroiled in Cameron's campaign of deceit and lies, but I would have liked to see a bit more debate within the party."
Throughout this campaign it's been a struggle for Sturgeon to be seen to back remaining in Europe, but in a way that is as different as possible from the way David Cameron backs it. The SNP has refused to join a cross-party campaign through fear of replicating the chummy "Better Together" approach that hastened the downfall of Labour in Scotland, when they campaigned alongside the Conservatives during the independence referendum.
But because of the distance she wants to create between herself and the prime minister, Sturgeon's interventions have not been particularly helpful for the Remain camp. She has told anti-EU members of the public that she could "spend the whole evening" listing things that are wrong with the union, and accused Cameron and chancellor George Osborne of making "overblown" claims about the economic impact leaving the EU could have.
Most often, Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond have spent the campaign talking about what impact leaving the EU could have on the prospect of Scottish independence. Salmond said on Thursday night, during a BBC debate, that he would expect another independence referendum within two years of a UK-wide Leave vote next month, assuming Scottish votes taken in isolation back staying in.
This is a message that SNP GO leader Parker believes has cut through to SNP voters, who would otherwise happily vote to leave the EU. "People react to us like we're trying to take independence away," he said.
"I went out to canvass opinion and said to people, ‘If you knew for a fact it would make no difference to a future independence referendum, would you vote Leave?' Fifty-six per cent of people said yes. They feel the only way to get independence is voting in and hoping England vote to take us all out."
The two anti-EU SNP campaigns – SNP GO and SNP for Leave – are small and unofficial. SNP GO has "one or two" active members in each constituency in Scotland, and Scottish Vote Leave campaigners say they've been in contact with around 100 anti-EU SNP voters who will form the basis of the SNP for Leave group. But, over these final few weeks, they hope to make it clear that a substantial number of SNP voters want to leave the EU.
"SNP for Leave is a group of SNP members and supporters who will be meeting together to discuss their views, concerns, how they want to get involved and get active," said a Scottish Vote Leave source. "Some are very surprised, some are frustrated by the leadership's stance. A lot of them are just saying it's a hugely illogical position, bearing in mind their views on independence."
Parker said he believes the support for leaving the EU within the SNP comes from members who have joined since Scotland's 2014 referendum and are dyed-in-the-wool supporters of Scottish independence.
"I think the old guard SNP, they will stick with the party line until they die," said Parker. "But the new ones who came in during Yes, they will disagree with Nicola Sturgeon from time to time – look at fracking, for example. But I’ve said I’m not going to slag the party off; I think Nicola Sturgeon is an inspiring and brilliant leader."
For their part, the SNP leadership say there is "no contradiction" in supporting the union with the EU but not with the rest of the UK. Sturgeon said in March: “Of course, I do want Scotland to be independent, but I don't want Scotland to become independent because the UK chooses to leave the EU.
“I want the UK as a whole to stay in the EU because I think that option will be better for the rest of the UK, I think it will be better for the EU and, should Scotland become independent in the future – something I believe will happen – I think it will be better for us too.”
But, for a small band of quiet but determined SNP supporters who want to leave, breaking ties with Brussels remains every bit as important as leaving the rest of the UK behind too.