The threat of another independence vote is becoming an annual tradition in the SNP calendar.
It seems to come round earlier every year, bringing joy to the world of nationalism and a bleak midwinter to the rest of us.
Nicola Sturgeon has again raised the spectre of Indyref2, telling Andrew Marr that she will decide later this year whether to hold a second referendum. Coincidentally — which is to say, not coincidentally at all — she will today launch an assessment of the impact of Brexit on Scotland. It’s safe to say she won’t be forecasting hugs and puppy dogs.
The First Minister has been emboldened by a UK Government blunder. The EU Withdrawal Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, contains a clause (Clause 11) which reassigns powers from Brussels to Westminster, including areas where the Scottish Parliament has responsibility. The SNP branded the move a ‘power grab’ and ministers promised amendments to head off a tussle with Holyrood.
Last week, Scottish Secretary David Mundell admitted the amendments had been delayed. Criticism came not just from Nationalists but from the Finance and Constitution Committee, which counts Tory MSPs among its number.
In failing to table the amendments, Downing Street has given the appearance of disrespecting the devolution process and its own Scottish MPs. Paul Masterton (East Renfrewshire) says: ‘I’m not happy the assurances I was given haven’t been met, but it’s a complex thing to do, and the key thing is the UK Government is absolutely committed to working with the devolved administrations to find a way through.’
The danger is not simply political but constitutional. The Scottish Government is threatening to bring forward its own Continuity Bill to set out a separate framework for Scotland’s laws in preparation for Brexit. That would drive a wedge into the process and give the Nationalists a propaganda victory that could be parlayed into fresh momentum for Indyref2.
Polling by Professor Sir John Curtice suggests that Scots, who voted against Brexit, are cautiously going along with it. That uneasy peace is delicate and any impression that Scotland has been left behind could tip the balance.
A Scottish Tory informant admits: ‘The Nationalists are superb opportunists. They always make sure they keep their options open. They put various pots on to simmer, ready to have the heat turned up so they can boil over when they need them. If it doesn’t work out for them, they’ll forget about it. If they get traction, they’ll push ahead… We have to make sure we don’t give them that political opportunity. It would be damaging.’
Those behind the scenes at Whitehall stress they are eager to avoid a constitutional brouhaha. They admit the failure to get the necessary amendments through at report stage was a self-inflicted wound. What is giving them hope is the wording of the Holyrood committee report, which calls for Clause 11 to be ‘replaced or removed’, the former being seen as a workable prospect.
A UK Government source tells me: ‘It makes sense from everyone’s point of view to reach an agreement. The Continuity Bill would wither away if we can do that. Our priority is to get the Withdrawal Bill into a place where it will command the support of devolved legislatures…
‘There is genuinely no desire on the part of the UK Government for a power-grab. We are coming at this from a pro-devolution perspective. Having devolved income tax, the idea that we want to start micromanaging crofting is for the birds.’
A stumbling block is that the legislation now moves to the Lords, where the SNP refuses to sit. That means there is no one to represent the Nationalist position. However, a Westminster operator pointed to the presence of respected peers such as Lord Hope and Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who would bring considerable expertise to scrutiny of the Bill’s impact on devolution.
The upper chamber isn’t the only test facing Downing Street when it comes to Brexit and Scotland. The 12 Scottish Tory backbenchers are becoming more assertive and independent-minded, even enjoying their own regular meetings with the Chief Whip. A Westminster source insists they are ‘ready to weigh in’ and ‘make nuisances of themselves if Number 10 doesn’t appear to be getting the message,’ adding: ‘On areas of Brexit policy that are particularly important to Scotland, like fisheries and agriculture, they have no choice but to listen. If the approach the government wants to take doesn’t work for the Scottish Conservatives, it won’t get through Parliament.’
How they handle Brexit will test whether the Tories can make themselves a viable party of government in time for 2021. If they can fix their Brexit blunder before the SNP capitalises on it, it would demonstrate that: 1) Theresa May is sincere in her Unionism, 2) A small contingent of Scottish Tories at Westminster can ‘stand up for Scotland’ better than an army of Nationalists, and 3) Ruth Davidson can bend Number 10 to Scotland’s interests more readily than Nicola Sturgeon can.
If you have a Tory Prime Minister willing to work with Scotland, and Tory MPs pressing Scotland’s case, why not complete the equation by electing a Holyrood government that can work smoothly with Westminster?
A Scottish Tory insider says: ‘The question is: What is the difference between an SNP and a Scottish Conservative government? Either you can have an SNP government whose job is to create tensions and highlight problems or a Conservative government that solves problems and has a constructive relationship. After ten years of the SNP, people are getting fed up with the constant grievances and want the two governments to work together.’
The Conservatives are right to set government at Holyrood as their long-term goal but the more immediate objective must be to deny Nicola Sturgeon the opportunity to revive Indyref2. If Ruth Davidson’s party can deliver a Brexit Scots can live with, and save the country from another divisive referendum, they could campaign to offer pragmatic government for a post-constitutional Scotland.
Former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron is in trouble after admitting he lied during the General Election.
Shameful. Was it about Brexit? Tax? Education?
No, the evangelical Christian dissembled when hounded on the subject of homosexuality by a self-appointed inquisition of media secularists. Mr Farron finally agreed that same-sex relations were not sinful, a statement he now admits was false.
The Bible teaches that such behaviour is wrong and he is a Bible-believing Christian. That sounds unforgivably harsh to modern, irreligious ears but it is standard teaching in almost all Christian denominations.
Some now want Mr Farron sacked as the party’s rural affairs spokesman. He does seem to have more experience with foot-in-mouth than foot and mouth but firing him would be an ominous, illiberal act. It would signal that people of faith are no longer welcome in public life.
Those who demand tolerance from Tim Farron should practise what they preach.
Chaos in Hawaii after residents were mistakenly sent a text message warning of an incoming missile. If they think that’s bad, they should swap phones with me. An update on nuclear annihilation would be a bright spot amid endless PPI alerts, no-win-no-fee spam, and my GP reminding me to get the flu jab he gave me two months ago.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.