Leader comment: May's reckless risk for little potential gain

It is hard to see what Theresa May thought she would gain by announcing in an interview that she was going to reject First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's call for a Scottish independence referendum before Brexit.

Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will not give in to SNP demands for a Scottish independence referendum next year or early 2019. Picture: PA Wire
Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will not give in to SNP demands for a Scottish independence referendum next year or early 2019. Picture: PA Wire

In a widely anticipated move Mrs May has sought to delay another Scottish independence referendum. The Prime Minister has called for the nation to all get behind the Brexit negotiations saying the country should be “working together, not pulling apart”.

If she actually believes that Scotland will now heed her wise words and settle down to await the results of Brexit before considering again the matter of independence she is deluding herself. The Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson is similarly naive in her view that the people of Scotland need to see how the UK is faring outwith the EU before Scots can make an informed choice.

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Of course it is one thing declining to acquiesce to the demands of a First Minister, it will be a completely different thing to stand in the way of the Scottish Parliament. Next Wednesday, the First Minister’s call will go before the MSPs at Holyrood, and will certainly be passed. The settled will of the Scottish Parliament will be for a referendum.

It is unlikely the Scottish Government will keep quiet about that.

It will be impossible to argue that the democratic will of Scotland is not being denied. The SNP narrative of harsh Tories with no mandate north of the Border from an unelected Prime Minister and with only one MP here, riding roughshod over the Scots will be 
massively helped. The First Minister has already cast Mrs May as the spectre of 
Margaret Thatcher following her response, she knows that always plays well.

Even some Scots who do not want a referendum will see this as an affront to devolution and the power of the parliament. Those who do want a referendum will see this as fuel to the flames and will exploit it.

Mrs May wanted to get on with the Brexit negotiations without the distraction of an independence referendum, but she is going to have a distraction anyway. This response is simply going to up the ante.

And what will the Scottish Government do next? It believes it has a mandate following the last Holyrood elections, parliament has spoken. Ms Sturgeon is already hinting at a show referendum even though the result would always be fatally flawed, but what a vehicle for reminding people of Westminster’s stance.

But perhaps Mrs May can tough it out, just tune out the noise from Scotland and get on with it regardless of the shouts from the sidelines. When she gets round to post-Brexit referendum talks, the UK Government will be in a far weakened position, the resentment will have been stirred, but perhaps it was always going to be in a weak position, and Theresa May feels she won’t have lost anything.

That is a huge gamble to take on the very serious matter of the future of the UK. Her predecessor liked a huge political gamble, and see where that left the country.