As the SNP membership gathered by the Clyde for their party conference, one of the key figures in the upcoming Brexit negotiations stood up and slashed the odds on a second Scottish independence referendum.
It wasn’t Nicola Sturgeon. In fact, if there was a message from the First Minister at the weekend, it was that she was willing to act against her party’s singular goal.
After her flirtation with ‘transcendental independence’ on the anniversary of the 2014 referendum, Ms Sturgeon had to show she wasn’t being chased by fundamentalists in her own party. SNP delegates were therefore told a consultation on a new independence bill will be published this week - a hum-drum bit of legislative housekeeping which nonetheless got a standing ovation – but they were sent away with the message: “The time is coming to put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands”. Hardly a trumpet blast sounding the march towards independence.
As she has done since the EU referendum, the First Minister threatened to call a second vote on Scottish independence if she needs to, but she also offered the Prime Minister a deal. Maintain the trading relationship and open borders between the UK and Europe, or give Scotland the international deal-making and immigration powers so it can protect those ties for itself, and the threat of independence will be off the table.
In other words, Mrs May has been challenged to deliver a ‘soft Brexit’ or ‘soft indy’ if she wants to avoid the blame for another round of constitutional upheaval.
SNP conference was brought to you by the letter ‘i’ but it didn’t stand for independence, but inclusion. Kremlinologists parsed Mrs Sturgeon’s closing address for imperceptible steps towards a referendum, but the meat of her speech was a new push to improve the availability of childcare, roll-out of baby boxes for newborns full of parenting essentials, and a review of the care system.
All this while attacking the “xenophobic, closed, inward looking” Tories, who she branded the real separatists in UK politics. Rather than dwell on the process that might lead to another vote on Scotland’s future, Ms Sturgeon instead focused on drawing the dividing lines along which any future referendum will be fought - because she must know that of her terms for shelving indyref2, one the Prime Minister can’t meet, the other which she won’t.
Ms Sturgeon’s call for powers over agriculture, fisheries, immigration and foreign trade, some returning to the UK from Brussels and others already held by Westminster, amounts to a new constitutional settlement for the Scottish Parliament.
Even the most straightforward items on her list look to be a battleground. During the referendum, on behalf of the Leave campaign, fisheries minister George Eustice said Scotland would “automatically” get power over policy areas that are already devolved after Brexit. At his party’s conference Mr Eustice had a different message: there will be a “UK-wide framework” for fisheries. It’s not even clear if the Scottish Government will even get a seat at the table in negotiations with the EU on fishing and agriculture.
Even more than David Cameron, Mrs May has staked her reputation on reducing immigration. She has already said the UK will be leaving the EU on a single set of terms, and an opt-out for Scotland from the net migration target simply doesn’t fit into her plans. It’s doubtful that the same willingness exists to cut a deal with Scotland as it did after the 2014 referendum. As a Downing Street source told me last week: “Immigration is a reserved matter. That’s not going to change.”
If ‘soft indy’ isn’t in Mrs May’s interests, a soft Brexit is not in her gift. It was Donald Tusk who brought indyref2 closer with a speech last week that was a study in understated, resigned brutality. “The only real alternative to a ‘hard Brexit’ is “no Brexit”, the President of the Council of Europe said. He invited Brexiteers who believe they “can have the EU cake and eat it too,” to: “Buy a cake, eat it, and see if it is still there on the plate.
“There will be no cakes on the table,” Mr Tusk continued, “for anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar.” There’s a school of thought on Brexit that suggests the stark positions adopted by the Prime Minister and the likes of Mr Tusk are simply opening gambits . But on the European side, Brexit is an existential threat. Those expecting an accommodation emerging from talks in Brussels have forgotten Mr Cameron went in search of deal to keep the UK in the EU, and was sent home empty handed.
This isn’t a negotiation between two parties, the UK and the EU. There will be 27 different sets of interests on the other side of the table. Talks will take place against the backdrop of huge gains for the far right in France and Germany, who will be among the first to leap on any relaxation of free movement rules for the UK.
The fragility of European consensus was exposed yet again last week when the EU’s proposed free trade deal with Canada - the closest thing to a model for the UK’s eventual trade relationship with Europe - was effectively vetoed by the parliament of the Federation of Wallonia-Brussels in Belgium. You are forgiven for being unaware of that august assembly, but unless a compromise can be found by 27 October, a body representing 4.5 million people has scuppered a deal covering a combined market of over half a billion.
Wallonia, already a hotbed of post-industrial antipathy towards globalisation, may have been tipped over the edge last month when US digger manufacturer Caterpillar announced it was shutting its factory near Charleroi, shifting more than 2,000 jobs out of the country. The UK’s relationship with Europe turns on such things.
Mr Tusk has warned the UK delegation to expect an empty plate when it sits down in Brussels – perhaps with some meagre seasonings. Hard Brexit will be the only dish on the menu. Despite the more generous offer at Chez Sturgeon, it could still be hard indy for desert.