Joyce McMillan: Nicola Sturgeon plays the UK political game

Brexit protesters lack effective political opposition to guide them - apart from north of the Border. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Brexit protesters lack effective political opposition to guide them - apart from north of the Border. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

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Wednesday morning;
 and before the second wave of the new Scottish referendum storm breaks – in the form of Theresa May’s announcement that she will not agree to a referendum in 2018 or spring 2019 – I am reading a column in the Financial Times about Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to seek a second referendum, announced on Monday. The column is by David Allen Green, a former legal correspondent for the New Statesman, and is not written from any kind of Scottish perspective.

Instead, it reviews the various checks and balances on government action which can operate within Britain’s unwritten constitution, and how they might have moderated the extreme “hard Brexit” view Theresa May’s government has decided to take, following last year’s EU referendum; and it concludes that, despite some stout initial resistance in the House of Lords, and Gina Miller’s courageous stand in taking the court action which gave parliament a say in the first place, all of them have failed, leaving the 48 per cent who voted for the UK to remain a full EU member not only unrepresented, but often entirely ignored.

In this grim constitutional landscape, though, the columnist notes one point of continuing resistance. And although his idea that Scotland’s First Minister “has created a constitutional check and balance from thin air” is a slightly comic one – giving Scotland its familiar Brigadoon status as a place which appears from nowhere on the Westminster mental map only when it threatens to leave – his strong sense of Nicola Sturgeon’s referendum decision as an important move in the UK political game provides some serious food for thought.

For Unionists in Scotland, of course, it is a given that the SNP is only interested in one thing, and that thing is Scottish independence “at any price”; so that when Monday’s announcement came, the airwaves were loud with cries of outrage, as the Scottish Government was accused of using Brexit as a mere “excuse” – rather than a reason, with a particularly clear and recent electoral mandate – for the second independence poll with which the First Minister is said to be obsessed.

Yet Allen’s Westminster perspective on Nicola Sturgeon’s move opens up another interpretation, which perhaps makes more sense. Nicola Sturgeon has, after all, been a cautious and thoughtful politician throughout her career; and she must have known, as she made her announcement on Monday, that there was a high chance that she would lose any independence referendum held in the next two years, ending her own political career, damaging her party, and removing Scottish independence for the political agenda for decades to come. Thanks mainly to the oil crash, Scotland’s short and medium-term economic prospects do not look good; there has been no major surge in support for independence since the Brexit vote, a third of yes supporters want to leave the EU anyway, and faced with a second independence referendum on the brink of Brexit, the British powers-that-be would surely throw everything they have at the campaign to keep the UK intact – and they have a lot, in the way of big money and big media.

It’s therefore hard to ignore the possibility that while Nicola Sturgeon felt it was essential to signal that Scotland would not simply accept a hard Brexit – and would have been prepared to fight a referendum if necessary – she was actually, in this case, playing the UK political game, not the Scottish one, by trying to place the biggest obstacle she could devise in the path to a hard Brexit, which she believes will be disastrous for Scotland’s economy. And if so, she must be delighted by the response she received yesterday from Theresa May and David Mundell; which not only relieves her of the need to fight a furious and probably losing referendum campaign any time soon, but makes the Westminster government look high-handed and undemocratic, and condemns Theresa May to conduct the entire Brexit negotiation, from start to finish, with the threat of losing a large chunk of her kingdom still looming over her shoulder. It also, incidentally, confirms the UK government’s view that even two years from now, the British people will not know enough about the detail of Brexit to make an informed decision on it; which is a sobering thought.

If Nicola Sturgeon’s real aim was to make sure that Scotland’s views cannot be ignored during the Brexit negotiations, in other words, then she has played an absolute blinder. From now until 2022 – or whenever the Prime Minister finally concedes a vote – Theresa May and her government will have to keep an eye on the level of support for Scottish independence, and keep schmoozing Scottish interests whose support for the Union they cannot afford to lose – although whether Mrs May’s ministers actually have the skill, the interest, or the grasp of detail necessary to do this must be open to question, after David Davis’s disgracefully vague and ill-prepared committee performance at Westminster this week.

And as for the SNP – well, there is a chance that their leader has played a deadly serious hand, this week, which will finally be good for Scotland – in keeping our views and interests on the UK table – but bad for the SNP, if the Tory government reacts by becoming genuinely more responsive to Scottish concerns. After this week’s events, though, I’m reminded of the fact that when I listen to the words of the First Minister who was once that serious-looking girl from Irvine – passionate about defending the British postwar settlement, and appalled by the cruelty and stupidity of Thatcherism – I can often imagine a parallel universe in which Nicola Sturgeon’s political path took her not away from Labour, but into the heart of the party that is now making such a hash of opposing Theresa May’s government. And my guess is that if she had taken that course, the UK would not now be standing where it is, on the brink of a ridiculous retro revolution for which there is no plan; and to which – despite the votes of the 48 per cent – there is now no effective opposition except that stubborn Scottish voice of dissent, for which the UK as a whole may yet find itself grateful.

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