Nicola Sturgeon has chosen grievance over governance

It was Hamlet as performed by the Govanhill Amateur Dramatics Society. 

Nicola Sturgeon mugged for the audience of journalists as she delivered her ponderous monologue. 

Flanked by saltires, framed by the adornments of Bute House, she was centre stage — where she belongs — and talking to, talking for, the nation.

Pausing to mark the import of the moment, and let her photographer get a few decent shots of her looking presidential, she intoned: ‘Right now, Scotland stands at a hugely important crossroads. We didn’t choose to be in this position. In common with most people across the country, I wish that we weren’t.’

Heavy beats the heart of Mother Scotland. How she yearns to draw from her bulging quiver of powers a solution to the attainment gap or a programme to raise literacy and numeracy rates or investment so that elderly patients don’t spend hours in agony waiting for A&E treatment. Alas, the slings and arrows of outrageous Brexit are too great to suffer and she must, with utmost reluctance, take up foam fingers against a sea of troubles. 

If you’re in the market for this sort of self-serving scenery-chewing, the First Minister had you covered yesterday. Her aim was to present herself as a helpless victim of circumstance, well-intentioned, her hand forced by a block-headed and unreasonable Westminster government.

And she put on quite a production. She may or may not get her second referendum but she’ll at least get a nod in the Oliviers.

Sombre-faced, somehow holding her nerve, she went on:‘I know there are some who want me to rule out a referendum completely or delay the decision until much further down the line. I understand why some take that view. And of course these views weigh heavily on me.’

Nicola feels your pain. Perhaps her pollsters tell her this registers as sincere but it made her whole delivery sound hammier than a butcher’s shop window. 

But Brexit was the excuse for the whole charade and she jumped quickly to the pivotal scene: ‘Over the past few months, we have worked hard – really hard – to try to find agreement. The Prime Minister and her government have been given every opportunity for compromise. But today as we stand, for all we know, on the eve of Article 50 being triggered, not only is there no UK wide agreement on the way ahead – but the UK government has not moved even an inch in pursuit of compromise and agreement. Our efforts at compromise have instead been met with a brick wall of intransigence.’

Miss Sturgeon wants voters to think this is a second referendum on the EU. And it’s true she’s been working hard – really hard – to rack up the air miles but, despite jetting across Europe for Kaffee and some strudel, the result is that nothing substantive has changed. A European Commission spokesperson, reached after the bravura performance, confirmed the Barroso doctrine would apply – an independent Scotland would not automatically be in the EU; it would have to apply from the outside and hope for the best. The First Minister has not been seeking a compromise with the UK Government, she’s been trying to bargain down reality. 

Yet the real drama, as is so often the case, was behind the scenes. Yesterday was Theresa May’s day. The EU Withdrawal Bill was to pass its final legislative hurdle and the Prime Minister would be able to trigger Article 50. The Press pack would be camped outside Number 10. Owlish professors would be bundled by their elbow patches into TV studios to explain recondite points of constitutional theory. Sky News’s Kay Burley might even hoik off her slingbacks and sprint across College Green to corner a hapless minister desperately scrolling through his BlackBerry for the latest lines to take. 

But the understudy was determined to upstage the star. Murmurings ran through the Scottish Press corps on Sunday evening; the First Minister requested the presence of Holyrood hacks in the morning at her official residence Bute House, the Palace of Perpetual Grievance. The spotlight would be hers, and by causing an upset on the day of Parliament’s Brexit vote she could jab England in the eye yet again. In truth, she doesn’t need to convince a majority of Scots to back separation; she just has to rile enough excitable backbench Tories until one says something stupid — of the ‘good bloody riddance’ variety — and the soundbite can be played on loop. 

Miss Sturgeon cannot argue economics because the economics are against her. She cannot claim to be meeting a criterion because her 60% test has fallen by the wayside. All she has is identity politics, the fortune of rogues, and the bad luck of others. 

Surely, though, she didn’t have a choice after the outcome of the EU referendum? There is a veneer of plausibility to this line but it is ultimately specious. Westminster was warned; it cannot say it wasn’t. Wise counsellors cautioned that pursuing Brexit and especially a hard Brexit would create an opening for the Nats to cry ’sovereign will’ and let slip the dogs of outrage. Cooler heads were dismissed as overwrought Cassandras, buses were splashed with dodgy figures, and we are where we are. If yesterday turns out to have been the starting gun on the end of the United Kingdom, the Nats may have pulled the trigger but it was the Brexiteers who loaded the pistol. 

Still, be in no doubt, if it wasn’t Brexit, it would likely have been something else. A Tory landslide in 2020; British involvement in an international conflict; Andy Murray losing the number one spot in the tennis world rankings. Miss Sturgeon doesn’t know how to get gravely ill Scots in to see an emergency doctor within four hours but she sure knows how to rile people. She’s the Nigella Lawson of nationalism; she can whip up a banquet of umbrage from an empty cupboard. 

Something important happened yesterday. Nicola Sturgeon resigned as First Minister of Scotland to focus on her main job as head of the SNP campaign to break up Britain. When she replaced Alex Salmond in 2014, she was greeted with warm hearts and open minds by even committed Unionists. Opponents gave her the benefit of the doubt and normally sceptical pundits swooned over this young, smart, brilliant woman who was going to put the divisions of the referendum behind us, focus on her ‘defining mission’ of education, and bring together a bruised nation under the banner of One Scotland. 

Those days are past now. The window of opportunity to make a success of devolution, to use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to create a prosperous and fair society, has been slammed shut. A leader has cast aside her office and taken up the megaphone of an agitator and St Andrew’s House is a war room once more.

Scotland has lost a government and gained a pressure group, at the very time when families, businesses and public services need ministers to fight their corner. Nicola Sturgeon could have been their champion and knuckled down to the dull but vital work of making life better for people in Scotland. In the end, she wasn’t up to it; the draw of destiny proved too great. You don’t get into the history books by reducing inequality and helping poor kids go to university. 

Those who care about the Union, a category which in theory still includes the UK Government, cannot hope the First Minister’s performance gets panned by the Scottish public. Even if her turn doesn’t attract rave reviews, the separatism show will go on. Unionists must be equal to the threat they face. Hoping Miss Sturgeon changes her mind and it all goes away is the self-delusion of an ostrich. Resources, infrastructure and personnel will have to be dedicated to an incipient pro-UK campaign. When Alex Salmond heralded the 2015 general election result as the roaring of the Scottish lion, it was as campy and overblown as Miss Sturgeon’s Bute House performance. But there was a menace of momentum in his words and, like it or not, there was in Nicola Sturgeon’s statement too. 

There may be a second referendum but there will be no second chances for the Union. The integrity of the UK must be the primary objective in every negotiation on Britain’s new relationship with Brussels. Rightly or wrongly, the UK is leaving the European Union. It now falls to Theresa May to ensure it is not Brexit, pursued by a lion.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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