Lesley Riddoch: Sturgeon being left behind in Brexit legal fight

Should the Scottish Government try to piggyback the Brexit case moving to the Supreme Court this week or should Nicola Sturgeon leave well alone? Actually the First Minister may have no alternative but to get stuck in.

Gina Miller speaks to the media at the High Court in London after three judges ruled against the Prime Minister's decision to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and start the UK's exit from the European Union without the prior authority of Parliament. Picture: PA
Gina Miller speaks to the media at the High Court in London after three judges ruled against the Prime Minister's decision to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and start the UK's exit from the European Union without the prior authority of Parliament. Picture: PA

All hell was let loose last week when three High Court judges ruled the UK Parliament must vote on the timetable of Brexit instead of letting Theresa May make the decisions privately and at her own pace – as she prefers. The case was brought by a London-based Spanish hairdresser, a group called People’s Challenge and an investment manager Gina Miller. It was backed by a crowd-funding campaign and three London law firms but Gina Miller rapidly became the face of the cause, arguing that only Parliament could make decisions that might lead to the loss of citizens “rights” under EU law. The High Court judges agreed.

Ms Miller stressed the challenge was not an attempt to overturn the referendum decision but that the case was taken to let MPs scrutinise the details of Brexit or according to her; “how we leave, how they’re going to negotiate and the directions of travel the government will take.”

She concluded: “What we’re saying is you can’t have it both ways. You can’t talk about getting back a sovereign Parliament and being in control but at the same time bypass it. That isn’t a democracy, that is verging on dictatorship.”

But even as democrats and remain voters cheered, Gina Miller was being sent death and rape threats on social media and having her private life aired in hard-Brexit supporting papers. Nonetheless, she gamely intends to stick with the case as the UK Government appeals to the Supreme Court. Of course, Ms Miller is no stranger to controversy. In 2012, with her husband Alan, she launched the True And Fair Campaign to lobby against misleading legal fees. She was labelled the “black-widow spider” by opponents.

In short, she’s a determined, likeable, articulate woman who isn’t easily intimidated – a bit like Nicola Sturgeon. Indeed the main difference between these two bonny fechters is that the citizen Gina Miller has put money, energy, time and her own reputation on the line over this democratic challenge, while the political leader and lawyer, our own First Minister has been hanging back.

To put it’s bluntly, Nicola Sturgeon is being outdone in the fight to protect British democracy and Scottish interests by an English investment banker. That will not look right to SNP supporters.

And it’s set to look even worse.

Although the Welsh people voted to leave the EU it is they, not the Scots who have seized the moment and boarded Gina Miller’s legal charabanc. The Welsh Counsel General will ask the Supreme Court to hear Welsh arguments against plans to trigger Brexit without parliamentary scrutiny. They want the Brexit strategy debated in the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly before Article 50 is triggered. North of the border there’s talk that legal conventions support this stance. But folk may soon wonder why the Welsh have been confident enough to act while the normally bolshy Scots have not?

And never mind the Welsh, last week’s High Court defeat for Theresa May managed to awaken the slumbering Labour Party. Despite fears of losing northern seats to Ukip, Jeremy Corbyn has nailed his colours firmly to the mast saying Labour will block the UK’s exit from the EU if the Government cannot guarantee access to the single market. The Labour leader will gain political profile and kudos if he can end the current highly-charged, off-beam slanging match and convert it into a measured debate between the merits of a “cold turkey” Brexit and one with continuing access to the single market.

Wouldn’t it be strange if Jeremy Corbyn became the champion of soft Brexit when the Scottish Government with an electoral mandate and a legal opportunity failed to act?

Even stranger if Nicola Sturgeon’s team are also out-played by the ermine-clad members of the House of Lords. It’s not just MPs who will be able to scrutinise Theresa May’s plans if her appeal to the Supreme Court fails. Their Lordships will also get in on the act – and after successfully blocking tax credit legislation and taking the lead against modern slavery, lobbying, pensions reform, trade union reform and privatisation of Royal Mail, they have recent disruptive form.

It might seem like an attractive option for Nicola Sturgeon to stand back, let the Tories self destruct and let Scots compare the two styles of leadership. But can the First Minister really afford not to get the gloves on, when the Lords, the Labour Party, investment bankers and ordinary citizens have decided to join the fray?

Last week’s notorious Daily Mail front page with the headline; “Enemies of the People” beside pictures of the three High Court judges has prompted the creation of two online petitions. One, backed by former Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell, calls on British Airways to stop stocking the newspaper on planes. Its creator asks: “What must overseas visitors think of the anti-european headlines they read when flying into the UK?” At the time of writing it had 22,000 signatures. Another calling for the Daily Mail to be prosecuted under the Public Order Act 1986 had roughly the same.

Hard-line Brexiteers may have been angered by the High Court decision, but I’d guess more folk are quietly appalled by threatening and homophobic newspaper tirades against the judges and the failure of government minister Liz Truss to defend them or to condemn Nigel Farage’s incendiary prediction that riots on the streets will occur if MPs try to block Brexit. Evidently a right-wing cabal is set to harass anyone who questions the Prime Minister’s chaotic blunderbuss of a Brexit strategy.

But opposition is mounting. Can Scotland’s First Minister afford not be leading that posse?