Nicola Sturgeon always seems to enjoy her visits to Westminster despite her differences with most party leaders but has the latest attempt to co-ordinate anti-Brexit opposition come too late, asks Joyce McMillan
This week, Nicola Sturgeon went to Westminster, and - as she often does - seemed to enjoy herself there.
She gave a good-humoured and extremely cogent television interview about the current Brexit situation, had talks with all the Westminster party leaders, and, so we’re told, engaged in a bit of banter with various prominent Brexiteers, sticking her head into one of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group meetings to the sound of loud cheers from within, and joking with Boris Johnson in the corridor outside Theresa May’s office.
From a Scottish point of view, there’s something almost disturbing about the ease with which the First Minister seems to grasp and enjoy Westminster politics. It invites strange thoughts about how, with a little twitch in the curtain of time or slide into a parallel universe, Nicola Sturgeon really could have been the UK politician to help us chart a way out of the Brexit impasse; and the more so because for all the enjoyable theatre of the FM’s London visit, there’s a growing feeling this week that - largely thanks to the Labour’s two-year failure to offer a clear alternative position on Brexit - this latest attempt to co-ordinate the anti-Tory opposition at Westminster is coming several months too late, and at a point when EU negotiators are increasingly eager, and indeed obliged, to draw a firm line under this stage of the Brexit negotiation.
At this crisis-point, of course - like birds finally flushed from the depths of a thicket of obfuscation - the ideas about Britain’s future that should have been aired in the first weeks after the EU referendum are finally being heard around Westminster. People are talking of permanent European Economic Area and EFTA membership, as a proven means of thriving outside the European Union while enjoying frictionless trade with it; and speculating - with some reason - that these are the positive solutions to Britain’s Brexit crisis that might command a parliamentary majority.
The truth, though, is that so far as alternative positive proposals for Brexit are concerned, it is difficult to see how they can now reach the table in time to provide the UK with an orderly exit from the EU next spring. At the very least, any Commons majority alliance against Theresa May’s deal would have to seek a long extension of Article 50 so that a better deal could be negotiated, possibly via a general election and a new negotiating team; and given the multiple uncertainties of that process, including the EU’s clearly stated unwillingness to reopen negotiations, it increasingly looks as if the Westminster Parliament is facing a stark choice between the Prime Minister’s deal, no deal, or a series of moves designed to reverse the Brexit decision altogether, presumably through a second referendum.
And what this means for Scotland is that despite Nicola Sturgeon’s brave words at Westminster this week about a possible improved Brexit deal, the only thing really left to play for in the UK parliament is a situation where Theresa May’s deal is voted down, and the Brexit project begins a messy collapse towards a default “Remain” position. Indeed it is striking that in the past week, even some previously convinced Brexit supporters have begun to say that remaining in the EU offers a better deal that May’s spectacularly flawed agreement.
If the Brexit project were to start to crumble, that would undoubtedly suit the First Minister in several ways. First, she would have the democratic satisfaction of seeing the Scottish people get what they voted for in 2016, by majority of almost two to one. Secondly, and most importantly, it would spare Scotland the severe economic damage that she believes Brexit will inflict on it, and that would be exacerbated by the terms of Theresa May’s deal, which leaves Scotland at a gaping commercial disadvantage to Northern Ireland. Some independence supporters cling to the view that the worse Brexit gets, in its impact on Scotland, the more Scottish voters will turn to the SNP; but Nicola Sturgeon is too experienced a campaigner in Scottish politics not to know that an economically confident Scotland is always far more likely to vote for self-government than a depressed one, and that a decade of severe economic hardship, after Brexit, could mean a long period in the political wilderness for the independence cause.
And then finally - and most ambiguously - the First Minister would have the luxury of watching from a certain distance the battle royal that would ensue in English politics, were Brexit to be cancelled on the basis of a second vote with a result not much more decisive than the first one. Given the forces unleashed in UK politics by the first vote on EU membership, it is frightening to imagine what demons might emerge following a second one in which the forces of chauvinistic nationalism and popular revolt were defeated; in some quarters, the rage, the disappointment, the sense of democratic outrage and disaffection, would know no bounds.
And it may be, of course, that that spectacle would tend to drive voters in Scotland towards independence, as England wrestles with profound internal divisions over its own future. It’s my impression, though, that the First Minister is wary of the kind of unrest that might damage lives and livelihoods anywhere on these islands; unlike those Westminster politicians who spend their lives in denial about the interconnectedness of Britain and Ireland, or Britain and the rest of Europe, she is of necessity only too well aware of our interdependence, and of the need to respect it, even while negotiating change.
Scotland’s First Minister perhaps hopes for no Brexit at all, in other words, particularly if the decision validated by a thumping new popular vote. Yet she must also be concerned about the tidal waves of rage, disruption and political instability that a Brexit reversal might unleash, in the country that will always be our nearest neighbour; which is perhaps why she continues to grasp at any chance of the kind of soft Brexit deal that would bring the whole of these islands safely round this dangerous corner, even as that possibility seems to be slipping, almost irrevocably, beyond our reach.