Brexit won’t drive us into the SNP’s arms – nor can it fix the Union’s flaws

Theresa May will not deliver a good deal for Scotland from the Brexit negotiations. That much we know already. 

The Prime Minister is in Scotland today as she prepares to invoke Article 50. That her scramble north of the border coincides with the precise moment the rest of the country realises she’s put David Davis in charge of securing our political future is pure happenstance. (Wait till the punters find out who she’s entrusted to strike international trade deals. The PM might want to take a detour and spend some time in Perth. Australia.)

But she’s coming and that’s what matters. She hasn’t put a foot wrong on any of her Scotland visits so far. Before Conservative strategists high-five over that, remember Mrs T handled Scotland well initially too. Prime ministers are tested in marathons, not sprints. Nevertheless, she is keeping pace with the Nationalists and even tripping them up now and then. For a Tory premier from Berkshire, that’s not bad. 

The PM’s foray northwards is for show but it is not trivial. It’s all part of Theresa May’s resolve to be infuriatingly reasonable towards the Scottish Nationalists. Grievances are the carbohydrates of nationalism; eliminate them and the body grinds to a halt. 

Mrs May will meet Nicola Sturgeon, brief her on the UK Government’s next moves in the Brexit process, be updated on the latest complaint from Bute House (‘And how come they’ve never made Irn-Bru tablet on the Bake Off?’), and smile politely, even when she’s served lukewarm tea in a chipped mug and a lonely finger of Tesco’s extra value shortbread. 

Mrs May will go through this risible ritual, returning girn with grace and provocation with resolve, in the knowledge that the slightest slip will be seized for kindling on the SNP’s eternal bonfire of petulance. Recall the school bullies of your childhood who climbed the playground pecking order by goading the other kids then wailing for the teacher when their umpteenth prod produced a punch. Not to spoil the surprise at your school reunion but they ended up going into politics and, yes, they’ve done well for themselves.

So the PM finds herself in a Brexit bind. She must emerge from the negotiations with agreements that will placate the Brexiteers, reassure the Remainers, convince the markets, do right by the devolved nations, though not so well as to antagonise Middle England, all while being damned for not caring enough about the needs of one or more of these groups. 

And no matter what Mrs May gets for Scotland, Miss Sturgeon will be at her presidential podium — in such haste that aides will only have time to put up 15 Saltires in the background — announcing another offence to the people of Scotland. 

If Brexit saw the Scottish Parliament gain full powers over fishing, agriculture and the GDP of China, Sturgeon would cry: ‘I heard Wales is getting power over dragons. Why aren’t we getting dragons? It is the sovereign will of the people of Scotland that we get dragons.’

The First Minister has already signalled her intentions here, initially by making demands for the outcome of Brexit talks that were never going to happen, then by fashioning a conspiracy theory about a secretive Westminster cabal plotting to take powers from the Scottish Parliament. When she was pressed on the identity of the conspirators, she became more circumspect. You wouldn’t know them. I met them at my granny’s bit. They go to a different devolved legislature.

There is dignity and honour in a nationalism that accounts for itself. The SNP hides its flag behind the banners of others: Red Clydeside in the Seventies; Coal, Not Dole in the Eighties; Not In My Name in the Noughties; and the Stars of Unity today. The SNP’s failings in government are not the result of callous sadism towards the poor and the vulnerable; the absence of vision for post-independence not an indicator of ambition lacking. The truth is more prosaic, more pitiful: The SNP has spent so long pretending to be things it’s not, it’s no longer clear what it’s actually for.

Independence can be realised without charlatanry but it requires candour about the kind of Scotland the SNP aspires to. Until the party is prepared to confront these questions, Brexit will be just another pretext and it will fail like those that went before it. 

The Nats aren’t the only ones in need of a quiet word with themselves. Unionists can prate all they like about ‘Scotland’s two governments’ and ‘our family of nations’ but there are flaws in the Union that Brexit cannot coat and even a second referendum defeat for separatism will not repair. 

The SNP’s argument is that Brexit is going to kick our economy to death, so let’s have independence to set fire to the corpse. Half the country is now busily dowsing itself in kerosene and asking to borrow a match. There stands the United Kingdom in 2017, a country of multi-level constitutional schisms which currently do not seem and ultimately may not be reconcilable. 

The Scots have long been eager-reluctant on the Union, heavy in the hierarchy but ever-mithering about threats to their distinct identity. The SNP didn’t invent Scottish exceptionalism, they captured it from the other side. 

Why is it that after 310 years of wealth created and poverty attacked, workers united and women liberated, evil confronted and adversity overcome, an Empire built in pride and dismantled in noble shame, power evened across our islands and prosperity shared with the world’s poor — why is it that after three centuries of making history Scots still think themselves its victims? Why when it commands the admiration of world leaders, thinkers, and writers, is our Union still a hard sell at home?

Such are the feats of Theresa May. She has to pull off an impossible deal and answer those questions along the way. 

*****

‘The NHS is the closest thing the English people have to a religion,’ observed Nigel Lawson, a nonconformist in such matters. 

Bevan’s liturgy of priorities, practised across Britain, remains canon but even those who cleave to the principle of healthcare free at the point of use know the funding model is unsustainable. 

A few extra quid in the collection plate is popular but doesn’t address the structural challenges. At some point, braver politicians than the ones we favour will have to incur the ire of the electorate and devise an alternative means of financing and delivering universal provision. 

But just as the statist mindset staves off iniquitous thoughts of competitive insurance schemes and copayments, the economic rationalists hymn salary restraint all the while knowing that staff pay is incidental to problems that are in truth institutional. 

So the BMA is right to question the Scottish Government’s one per cent salary cap. NHS staff keep the system running on skill, sweat, and stress. They don’t expect miracles, just fairness. 

*****

Fundraising for the family of PC Keith Palmer, who died defending our Parliament last week, has raised more than £700,000 on Just Giving. Donations are also being made to the Police Dependants’ Trust and Care of Police Survivors (COPS), which support injured officers and the loved-ones of the fallen.

The police are there when we need them. Let’s dig deep to show our gratitude. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk.

Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0 and UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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