Euan McColm: Sturgeon's chance to forge lasting legacy

During the Brexit chaos that dominates our national agenda and continues to expose Theresa May as a prime minister of uncommon incompetence, Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed her status as one of the most skilled politicians anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Sturgeon shakes Ruth Davidsons hand after a head-to-head TV debate. They should be able to find common ground on Scotlands future relationship with Europe. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

As the UK government fought to escape a whirlpool created by its failure, early last week, to find a satisfactory answer to the question of how, post-Brexit, the border with Ireland might operate, Sturgeon stamped her mark on proceedings, making the strong case that if Northern Ireland could expect some kind of unique status after the UK leaves the EU, so could, say, Scotland.

The Scottish Government has been arguing since the result of last June’s referendum was declared that Scotland should have a special agreement on issues ranging from immigration to membership of the single market. These had been pie-in-the-sky demands, based on political calculation rather than the realistic prospect of achieving them, until it seemed Northern Ireland might have special status. Suddenly, the First Minister had a case.

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Politics can create the most unlikely alliances and so, while Sturgeon was making her argument, Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson issued a statement saying that if a frictionless border with Ireland required some alignment in the north with EU regulations, the PM should conclude that such arrangements should apply across the UK.

Both the First Minister and the Scottish Tory leader echoed the hopes of many Remain voters, and not just in Scotland. Not for the first time, while chaos engulfed the UK government, Davidson and Sturgeon tried to change the direction of the UK’s departure from the EU, moving away from the “sod-the-lot-of-you” approach favoured by hard Brexiteers and finding a path which would lead to the closest possible relationship between Britain and Europe after the country’s departure from the European club in 2019.

It was not long before Sturgeon and Davidson’s differences were exposed, however. When, on Friday, the Prime Minister announced that talks between the UK and the EU were progressing (though, since there is to be no agreement until the end of this negotiating process, it will be some time before we know whether that is truly the case) and that there would be no hard border, post-Brexit, dividing Northern Ireland from the Republic, the First Minister pointed out that this meant an end to Unionist claims that an independent Scotland would have to have a hard border with England.

Sturgeon had a point, though her Tory opponent wasn’t having it. It didn’t take much for the First Minister to start “banging the indy drum”, said Davidson.

I suspect many Scottish remain voters will have felt similarly disheartened by Sturgeon’s insistence on trying to make this issue about Scottish independence.

The First Minister can be a confusing figure for the pro-UK and pro-EU Scottish voter. Her warnings about the catastrophic impact of Brexit may elicit nods of agreement but it remains the case that many of those who agree with Sturgeon on the EU think she is completely wrong about the UK.

The intellectual incoherence of the First Minister’s case – remaining in one political and trading union is essential while remaining in another is madness – does, I’m afraid, rather undermine it and so Sturgeon’s line about borders was understandably tempting but not at all politically savvy.

What a depressing state of affairs this is for the Scottish Remainer. Right now, with the UK government in such a shambolic state, what’s needed from Sturgeon is focus on the central issue, not sniping about her own constitutional obsession.

The First Minister has already been forced by the prospect of devastating defeat to postpone plans for a second independence referendum. This being so (and, perhaps, with an eye to her own legacy) Sturgeon should be thinking about what she might actually achieve in the interests of the majority of Scots (even those who did not vote for her).

There is an opportunity, as some powers to be repatriated from the EU go to Holyrood rather than Westminster, for the First Minister to look again at the devolution settlement. And she should not approach this as a combatant but, instead, should look across parties at Holyrood to build support.

There are, on the Tory benches, many who would support a more muscular devolution agreement. Should Sturgeon push for something approaching full fiscal autonomy, increased borrowing powers and full control over welfare, she may find that some kind of consensus can be reached in the Scottish Parliament.

In these fractious times, with Scotland divided by one constitutional line and the UK divided by another, we are crying out for the restoration of some calm.

The First Minister can play a lasting role in achieving that, in Scotland at least.

We need MSPs to look at the mess of Brexit and ask how, by the end of the miserable process of departure from the EU, they can make a positive difference.

Davidson has made it perfectly clear that, after leading the Scottish Tories past Labour and into second place in Scotland, she intends to steal Sturgeon’s crown at the next Holyrood election.

This is quite the ambition which, if she is to achieve it, will require anything but amicable relations with the current First Minister. Pity.

Having voted by a substantial majority to remain in the EU last year, Scots are now watching the unfurling of a chaotic divorce they didn’t want. There is very little that political champions of these voters – whether in the shape of the First Minister or the Scottish Conservative leader – can do now to change the shape of Brexit.

But Sturgeon, Davidson, and others at Holyrood could try to restore some stability amid the current political turbulence.

If Brexit – with all of its miserable consequences – must happen, then I’d rather like MSPs to do what they can to ensure Scotland is in the best possible shape to deal with it.