Sturgeon’s last stand

As the country emerges from this week’s enforced hibernation, many will be thinking ahead to a summer holiday in warmer climes. A break away from the stresses and strains of life and a chance to relax before returning to the rat race. 

Those of a sensitive disposition might want to extend their sun-kissed sojourn indefinitely. If Scottish Secretary David Mundell is to be believed, we could be heading for yet another referendum — this time a second go at the question of independence.

The Conservative Cabinet minister warned that, although the loss of 21 SNP seats in last year’s General Election frustrated Nicola Sturgeon’s Indyref2 drive, ‘she is already back to her old tricks.’ He explained: ‘I fear we will face a fresh call for a vote on leaving the UK in the months ahead but I remain as determined as ever to fight back and stand up for the majority of Scots who dread another, damaging bout of constitutional skirmishing.

‘Now is the time to pull together, to focus on the most important issue facing the UK: securing the best possible deal as we leave the EU. Not forcing another unwanted independence referendum on the people of Scotland.’

To the majority of Scots who voted No in the original referendum, and who oppose a re-run any time soon, the prospect of a return to the rancour and division of 2014 will send a chill down their spine far icier than anything the Beast from the East could throw at them.

However, the Scottish Secretary’s admonition, far from precipitous, has come later than it ought to. For it has been clear for some time now that the SNP is determined to rejoin constitutional battle and Brexit is their intended occasion for a rematch. That mission took a leap forward on Tuesday when the Scottish Government unveiled its Brexit Continuity Bill. SNP ministers disagree with the UK Government’s Brexit Bill, calling it a ‘power grab’ that undermines devolution, and have introduced their own legislation as a stop-gap measure.

Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh has ruled that the Bill is not ‘within the legislative competence of the Parliament’ and warned that ‘provisions of an Act of the Parliament which are outside legislative competence are not law and have no legal effect’. But the Scottish Government says it will press ahead regardless, pointing to a legal opinion from Lord Advocate James Wolffe who told MSPs on Wednesday that the Bill passed legal muster.

This sets the two governments on a collision course and could even end up in the Supreme Court. It also comes despite ongoing negotiations to strike a deal between the two administrations. On Monday, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington said a ‘considerable offer’ had been made to Nicola Sturgeon’s team.

A UK Government source expresses frustration at Bute House’s tactics, telling me: ‘It is extraordinary that the UK Government is being accused of disrespecting the Scottish Parliament by an administration that has just dismissed a clear constitutional ruling by the Presiding Officer out of hand. It begs the question: are the Scottish Government serious about reaching agreement on the Withdrawal Bill – which needs to happen if we are to protect the economy – or are they more interested in pursuing their own constitutional agenda?’

The First Minister’s risky roll of the dice certainly casts a pall of hypocrisy over her frequent claims to be defending Holyrood from a disrespectful UK Government. Could anything be more disrespectful than rushing an emergency Bill through parliament, in defiance of the Presiding Officer, and without allowing MSPs to scrutinise it as thoroughly as other, less momentous legislation?

It’s true that the Secretary of State failed to bring forward promised changes to the Westminster Bill on time but Mr Mundell has accepted responsibility for this and expressed regret for allowing the amendments to fall foul of a packed parliamentary schedule.

There has been no likewise humility from Miss Sturgeon’s administration. That is because there is no regret felt. The SNP leader views the UK Government’s Brexit difficulties — a moment of acute risk for political stability and economic opportunity — as nothing more than a pretext to get the band back together for Indyref2.

In that endeavour, the First Minister is being unwittingly (and witlessly) aided by a combination of Downing Street, the government backbenches, and a bitterly rent Tory Party. The Prime Minister, a Remainer who implements Brexit with the anxious fervour of the forced convert, is publicly cajoled from her Left and Right.

Implacable Leavers on the backbenches urge her — with barely concealed menace — to forge ahead with a harder, faster, cleaner Brexit while their intra-party rivals sound dire warnings about the consequences of not reversing course and aiming for a minimalist Brexit, one which retains UK membership of the customs union and, ideally, single market.

Nothing symbolises the division and disarray in the Tory Party quite like Sir John Major’s intervention earlier this week. For a former Conservative Prime Minister to savage the current one, to list in forensic detail her every miscalculation and U-turn, to demand that she give MPs a free vote and even the option of ordering a second referendum — this is extraordinary. The SNP may be exploiting splits in the Tory ranks but the Tory ranks are giving them splits to exploit.

Whether a speedy second referendum is truly what the First Minister wants is another matter. She has not got where she is by taking unnecessary chances; at every stage of her career she has shown herself to be canny and calculating, with an eye on the political horizon. Why, then, is she gearing up to bang the separatist drum again?

One theory is that she thinks this the best opportunity for the foreseeable future, but there is nothing foreseeable about the future these days. The First Minister is only in the fourth year of her premiership and there would be time to mount another referendum campaign after Britain’s exit from the European Union.

A rival explanation is the hourglass theory: The First Minister sees the sand flooding away and cannot imagine an ‘after Brexit’ moment. The passage of time, the import of the moment, the frustration at being on the sidelines — these pressures may have convinced the Nationalist leader that her party will not forgive her a second failed attempt at Indyref2.

There may be some truth to this. Her grassroots have been ultra-loyal to Miss Sturgeon but she knows they are impatient for Scotland’s deliverance from the Westminster yoke. Nor will she have failed to notice that the low-key deputy leadership contest has come to life only when candidates have rattled the independence sabre. The subtext of such talk is clear: Nicola has been AWOL from the nationalist battle; it’s time she resumed combat with the Unionists.

Nor is it just the grassroots whose patience she is testing. Her backbenchers at Holyrood may not be the brightest but they know how to read an opinion poll. What once looked like a job for life has suddenly become a fight. For some, Indyref2 now and not a minute later is their last shot at glory.

Across the ledger sheet, public opinion weighs heavy. The naion neither wants independence nor another referendum on it. Frustratingly, despite overwhelmingly opposing Brexit, voters in Scotland seem (temporarily at least) to have made their peace with it. Whatever they think of Mrs May, she seems the best chance of getting through the process in one piece. Miss Sturgeon’s imprecations have not thus far convinced them that Brexit is a Tory conspiracy against the devolution settlement or a fundamental shift in the political landscape from four years ago.

This is illuminating because the Better Together campaign went to great lengths to assure the electorate that rejecting independence would secure Scotland’s place in Europe. By rights, Miss Sturgeon ought to have made more headway on this, though perhaps the doughty band of Brexiteers now occupying her membership rolls have proved too great a hindrance. Whatever the reason, a doubt is bound to be insinuating its way into the minds of Nationalists: Perhaps it’s not the message but the messenger.

Of course, if Brexit proves to be as ruinous as critics and independent experts warn, we may see a shift in public opinion in favour of independence. Yes, separation would be at least as costly and damaging as the worse case scenario Brexit but sometimes the voters do opt for the fire over the frying pan.

Nicola Sturgeon’s political capital is much reduced from the days when she moved with an imperial sweep, casting aside opponents with the power of her celebrity. She need not rekindle Sturgeonmania, only convince half the country plus one that independence would be less worse than Brexit. It would be a feat but only the most foolhardy would rule anything out in these turbulent times. Nonetheless, the balance of probabilities are against the First Minister.

One thing all sides agree on is that Miss Sturgeon’s room for manoeuvre is limited. She must balance public against party opinion, the will of Holyrood against the authority of Westminster, the constraints of time against the demands of a full-blown campaign. She has three main options.

The first, to pursue a second referendum, is the riskiest. Assuming Miss Sturgeon is not reckless enough to take a swing at an illegal plebiscite or the unilateral declaration of independence her most zealous supporters yearn for, she will have to win the consent of the UK Parliament.

That seems highly improbable as things stand. Thinking at Westminster has not evolved since the Prime Minister rejected calls for Indyref2 last year. The proposal is still seen as a distraction from the day-the-day governance of Scotland and a betrayal of the Nationalists’ assurance that the 2014 ballot would be a ‘once in a generation’ affair. Insiders would not be drawn on the specifics of a Downing Street response to any revivified referendum clamour but stressed that the UK Government’s position had not changed.

Even so, this might be part of the SNP leader’s calculation. If Mrs May refuses two votes in as many years, could that hand the Nationalists ammunition for their artillery of grievance? The public might not want a second referendum but being told they can’t have one — yet again, and this time by a far weaker Prime Minister — could put enough noses out of joint to bump support for separation by a point or two.

It is, however, a gamble fraught with peril. If it falls flat, the First Minister will stand humiliated and will no longer be unassailable within her party. But even if she could tempt enough Scots over to her side — perhaps witnessed by a series of polls showing backing for a breakaway at 55 per cent — she would find her problems magnified. The pressure from her rank and file to strike while the iron was hot would be furious.

A second option would be to kick the question into the long grass without appearing to do so. This would be the Houdini strategy, deploying misdirection to allow the First Minister to escape her self-forged chains. She could pledge another referendum after the 2021 Holyrood election, to be held halfway through the sixth devolved parliament, by which point ten years would have passed since Indyref1. That wouldn’t quite be a generation but it would be a more respectable interval. This way, the SNP could package independence as an insurance policy, which might be attractive in the early years of a difficult Brexit.

The middle path would be to kickstart a national conversation on Scotland’s constitutional future to inform the government’s decision-making, similar to the exercise Alex Salmond dreamed up in his first term in Bute House. This would serve as a pre-referendum, indicating where public opinion stood on independence and alternative options.

Nationalist activists would get a shiny new political effort to throw themselves into. Ministers would get an excuse to delay Indyref2 if, as is likely, voters show themselves reluctant about another poll. Whether this would placate the hardliners is an open question. It may be too transparent a fudge.

If Nicola Sturgeon’s options are limited, the potential outcomes make even grimmer reading for the First Minister. The best she can hope for is a sticking plaster solution which holds together her creaking coalition of Euronats, Brexit Yessers, gradualists, and fundamentalists. Should she fail to keep one or more of these rival constituencies satisfied, the shine may begin to wear off Miss Sturgeon’s leadership.

Since she replaced Alex Salmond, her members have accorded her a reverence usually reserved for religious icons. They have flocked to her rallies in their thousands, adorned themselves in her branded clothing range, and clambered for precious selfies with her, like those spiritual tourists who turn up to the latest shrine with ready cameras and open wallets. Will they begin to have doubts?

A leader who can deliver wipeout victories like 2015 inspires devotion but one who follows it up with a chaotic reversal like 2017 is owed a more sceptical reception. To compound this with another abortive referendum effort might give voice to an outright heresy: That perhaps she is not up to the task of delivering independence.

Were such apostasy to take root, Miss Sturgeon might find her crown coveted by a rival better able to appease a restless, impractical base. If that sounds fanciful, recall only that it is 2018 and Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party.

The coming months are shaping up to be Nicola Sturgeon’s last stand. If she cannot vanquish the Union while it is beset by the daily dramatics of Brexit, those around her will ask themselves if she ever can. That won’t necessarily cut short her time in Bute House but, barring some unforeseen turnaround, it will render her a defeated general, a weakened warrior.

Yet, like the Greeks at Thermopylae or the Sicarii at Masada, she must fight on, knowing it is almost certainly futile, for to do otherwise is to concede what hope that remains. The moment that Nicola Sturgeon admits a second referendum is not around the corner is, for her fervid followers, the moment the dream dies, at least for the time being. Miss Sturgeon’s burden is to keep the fantasy alive.

Most profiles of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon emphasise their differences yet we can better understand them by noting what they share. For those who like their political drama Shakespearean, these rival thrones — Downing Street and Bute House — are haunted by a common ghost. Both the Prime Minister and the First Minister have advanced by stirring their party’s rawest passions but now find themselves prisoner to them.

Mrs May’s nationalists want hard Brexit no matter the cost to the country or the Conservative Party and Miss Sturgeon’s nationalists are at least as hellbent on independence. The cosmic justice that both leaders may get their comeuppance is soured by the fact that the rest of us will get it too.

Yet it is to Nicola Sturgeon that the Fates have dealt a crueller hand. Mrs May does not really believe in Brexit; it is simply there, a great, lumpen reality of British politics that she cannot avoid. Miss Sturgeon, on the other hand, is a devout nationalist; independence has animated her politics since the age of 15.

It is getting away from her, swept up in the swell and crash of Brexit, Corbynism, referendum fatigue, and a growing hostility to the SNP government in Edinburgh. The war over Scotland’s constitutional future is still raging but Nicola Sturgeon is outflanked, outgunned and she is fast running out of time.

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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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