Lesley Riddoch: May is playing with fire by attacking SNP

Theresa May has clearly decided the best form of defence is attack.

A fortnight before she is set to trigger Article 50 – without a bespoke deal for Scotland – she has attacked the SNP’s record and railed against their obsession with flag-waving and constitutional change.

Anyone spotting Union Flag- clad delegates in the half-full auditorium for Theresa May’s Scottish Conservative conference speech will have savoured the irony. The only person talking about independence right now is the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon remains focused on the forlorn task of trying to get a differentiated deal that keeps Scotland within the European single market – not because she is naïve, o’er patient or thrawn but because Scotland’s First Minister knows a genuinely co-operative, can-do outlook will contrast starkly with the UK government’s unremitting intransigence. The SNP leader has opted to play within the rules of the UK game, take Theresa May at her word about a partnership of equals and produce a detailed options paper in the full knowledge the Tory leader wouldn’t spend a nano-second reading it – all for one powerful strategic purpose.

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In trying to defend Scotland’s interests within the constraints of the present UK settlement, Nicola Sturgeon is set to demonstrate that Westminster is incapable of giving the Scottish Parliament real, permanent power. The evidence is incontrovertible. The only question is when and whether Scottish voters sit up and notice.

This weekend Theresa May and Ruth Davidson both suggested key Brexit powers repatriated from Brussels (like agriculture, fisheries and the environment) may return to Westminster, and not be “automatically” devolved to the Scottish parliament, as the Leave campaign promised during the European referendum. The Prime Minister also suggested the whole devolution settlement is up for a rethink. She said: “The UK devolution settlements were designed in 1998 without any thought of a potential Brexit,” – suggesting that overarching powers currently exercised by Brussels will be transferred to London, not Edinburgh, and that Holyrood will henceforth administer UK-wide policies instead of creating bespoke Scottish ones.

As Iain Macwhirter has observed; “Holyrood’s powers are now, like EU citizens, being held hostage to the creation of the new UK single market.”

Indeed, it’s worse than that. The Tories – according to Scottish leader Ruth Davidson – may o’erleap the Scottish Parliament to devolve some powers beyond Holyrood to local councils. Whether that’s good is beside the point. Such a restructuring of Scotland’s power dynamics should be beyond the remit of Westminster. But as the Supreme Court ruling showed, the Sewel Convention “guaranteeing” Holyrood distinct areas of legislative control isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

All bets are off and Westminster can dismantle Holyrood if it wants. And evidently it does.

Of course, Tory apologists argue there is a good case for having one set of UK-wide regulations to ensure ease of trade within post-Brexit Britain and, bizarrely, with the EU. If harmonisation is such a no-brainer, Holyrood will surely follow Westminster’s lead. But there may be good reasons for Holyrood to take a different tack.

The UK government has repeatedly used European access to Scotland’s waters as a bargaining chip by which it can extract better deals for English farmers. UK governments have been selling Scottish fishermen short for decades – why should that change now?

And what’s to stop the Scottish Parliament playing hardball in the face of these imminent border raids and concluding new deals with authorities in adjacent fishing nations like Norway? That way the UK government will be forced to slap down Holyrood and no-one will mistake Westminster’s hostile intent.

As it is, Theresa May clearly thinks no-one will have the time or energy to complain about the location of powers once the tsunami of Brexit begins – even if a temporary position under the control of Westminster soon becomes a permanent shift of power that totally hobbles Scotland’s ability to correct decades of fishing mismanagement and vital farming policy.

Mind you, the Scottish Secretary David Mundell says powers returning from Brussels will be shared. Please.

Theresa May’s government is running roughshod over managers and workers within the English education and prisons systems and the English NHS. Why would she suddenly start paying attention to a Scottish Government she so patently doesn’t rate?

Perhaps Scots shouldn’t take it personally. There are just two news agendas running now – Theresa May’s plans for Brexit and Trump’s impact on the world. “Local” themes are just so much flotsam and jetsam – even when they involve the seismic shift of political power in Northern Ireland, and a quarter of a million folk protesting in London about the crisis in the English NHS.

There is, of course, one reason why this daylight smash and grab raid on Holyrood powers is happening. Opinion polls suggest there has been no change in support for independence since the 2014 referendum, despite the Scottish vote to Remain and the Prime Minister’s snubs to the Scottish Government’s case for a differentiated deal.

Taken together with polls that suggest Scots don’t fancy a return to the ballot box for Indyref2 anytime soon, the Tory leadership believes the prone Scottish body politic will not respond to further provocation.

That is a monumental mistake. Clearly voters fear more upheaval during a time of upheaval. Clearly too, EU membership isn’t the biggest issue in their lives.

The calamitous effect of Brexit on jobs, economic stability, trading prospects and frameworks of workers’ and human rights certainly is. But that case hasn’t been powerfully argued yet, precisely because the Scottish Government hasn’t been actively campaigning for independence since 2014. Of course Nicola Sturgeon has put the option “back on the table”. But that doesn’t amount to an active campaign of the kind the Tories have just launched. The First Minister has carefully put all her energies into finding a differentiated EU deal within the UK – not into the argument that independence would provide a better long-term solution. Not yet.

Many within the independence movement have felt frustrated by Nicola Sturgeon’s stubborn refusal to fire that starting pistol. But she’s been tactically right.

Very soon though, it will be gloves off – and about time too.