Nicola Sturgeon must not be overwhelmed by SNP supporters who have lost interest in building a consensus as she seeks to create a harmonious new Scottish state, writes Joyce McMillan.
Like everyone else in the UK and beyond, I was far from surprised to hear, on Tuesday evening, that the Prime Minister’s EU Withdrawal Agreement had been resoundingly defeated in the House of Commons; what I didn’t expect was the vague pang of despair I felt, when I learned of the scale of the defeat, and of the indiscriminate rejoicing it seemed to produce from both extreme Leave supporters, and passionate Remain voters campaigning for a second referendum.
It wasn’t that I liked the deal; but the truth is that in a Westminster world full of baying absolutists on one side or the other, it represented a breath of reality, a practical solution – however flawed – that had the agreement of our 27 European partners, and that would at least have protected us from the immediate threat of no-deal chaos on 29 March. It embodied, in other words, some of the mature spirit of compromise that will be necessary if Britain is ever to find a way out of the Brexit impasse; and whose continuing absence will certainly offer us nothing but years of damaging chaos and paralysis, at Westminster and beyond.
And I have to say that I felt something of the same despair again, when in the aftermath of the Prime Minister’s historic defeat, large numbers of SNP supporters took to social media to demand that Nicola Sturgeon “seize the moment”, and immediately call a second independence referendum. The strong impulse to flee the current Westminster shambles is understandable, of course; yet still, the loud demand for an immediate second independence referendum seems to me to belong to the same class of useless grandstanding as much of the Leave and Remain posturing seen around Westminster this week – although not for the same reasons.
For in the first place, it is far from clear exactly how the advocates of an immediate new referendum think the First Minister should go about achieving it. The theory seems to be that given the current chaos at Westminster, the UK Government would not dare to refuse a Scottish Government request for a Section 30 order paving the way for a second vote; whereas it seems to me that if there is one thing on which Theresa May’s Government could unanimously agree, at the moment, it is that they are not in the mood to to risk losing a third of UK territory, and a large chunk of its GDP, at the request of the Scottish Government. Their “no” would be implacable, and is unlikely to be reversed until the crisis reaches a less critical phase.
As for the alternatives, the Catalan example offers such a graphic demonstration of the dangers of holding an advisory independence referendum without agreement that it should give every independence supporter pause; a Scottish Government-organised referendum boycotted by the entire Unionist camp, and ignored by London, could set the cause of independence back by a decade, not least with that large majority of Scots who like to see constitutional matters dealt with legally and calmly.
If Nicola Sturgeon is proceeding with great caution, in other words, it is because she has good reason to; and because, as a politician who tends to seek consensus, she knows that Scotland remains almost evenly divided on the matter of independence. Sometimes, amid the maelstrom of Brexit politics, it is wise to step back a little and look at the big picture of where we would like Scotland and the other countries of these islands to be in 25 years’ time; and if the final aim is a peaceful confederation of countries living in a mutually respectful economic and trading union, with open borders and close social and cultural links, then we are unlikely to get there by seeking to snatch a second independence referendum out of the jaws of the Brexit crisis, and pushing a divided electorate to a knife-edge decision.
This is not to say, of course, that the idea of Scottish independence should be put on the back burner. Given the exceptionally centralised character of the British state, there will, in my view, come a moment when Scotland has to claim its independence, in order to negotiate a more equal relationship with all our island partners. For now, though, the chances of achieving a peaceful and consensual untangling of the Union are close to zero; and if it cannot be done by agreement and consent, then I suspect the vast majority of Scots would rather wait until it can, just as they waited patiently through the Thatcher years for the return of the Scottish Parliament, finally achieved by constitutional means in 1999 without a pane of glass broken, and with the overwhelming support of 75 per cent of the people.
And of course, what is true of Scottish independence is also true of Brexit. In order to square the circle of a nation 52 per cent of which wanted to Leave, and 48 per cent to remain, the British Government should have looked at the big picture, and gone immediately to the Norway-like option clearly proposed by the Scottish Government in its post-Brexit document of two years ago, and now being frantically mooted at Westminster again; the solution that would have eased the UK out of the EU’s political institutions while protecting free trade and travel, and that could – given cross-party working from the outset – have commanded a huge majority in parliament.
Instead, Theresa May chose to try to placate the hard-Brexit Tory right, adopting in the process a foolish and damaging set of ‘red lines’ that she will not abandon even now. And although Nicola Sturgeon faces nothing like the phalanx of well-funded reactionary extremists that make up the European Research Group, it is to be hoped that she will succeed – unlike Theresa May – in keeping her eye on the bigger picture; and will not be overwhelmed by those in her party who, like the ERG, have lost all interest in consensus, and have come to believe not only that she can act unilaterally to stage a second referendum, but that a majority however small, achieved in that referendum, would be a sufficient foundation on which to build a harmonious new Scottish state, in such tumultuous times.