Sturgeon: bounced on Brexit, adrift on Scexit

What with its daily twists and turns, parliamentary confrontations and legal intrigue, Brexit is the best drama the BBC has produced in years.

It’s maybe outstayed its welcome by a season or two, and the audience remains divided on the casting of Boris Johnson as the hero, but it has certainly kept the nation guessing all along.

The remake with Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, can’t seem to find its feet. Scexit suffers from an unsympathetic lead, scarcely credible dialogue and a fatal lack of viewer interest. Like many a BBC Scotland production, it plods on despite low ratings because it fills a hole in the schedule.

For all the parallels between the campaign to remove the UK from the European Union and that to remove Scotland from the United Kingdom, there is an obvious difference: the former has been infinitely more effective. Five years ago, Brexit was still a distant dream for Eurosceptics. The Tories had no majority for a referendum and were unlikely to get one any time soon and, even if they did, a more or less consistent majority of Britons told pollsters they wanted to stick with Brussels.

Yet, five years on, for all the roadblocks erected by Parliament, the UK’s departure from the EU is closer than ever. The Tory Right has turned what was once a niche ideological fixation into the policy of Her Majesty’s government and has almost got one of the most unyielding interpretations of that policy over the line. Mere backbenchers have set the agenda for Prime Ministers and, despite many a misstep and miscalculation, victory is within their grasp.

The SNP cannot muster a tenth of this cunning. Go back those same five years, and the Union had only just survived and the Nationalists had got closer to winning separation than anyone envisioned at the opening of referendum hostilities. There was a chill of inevitability in the air.

The SNP was hoovering up new members, selling out stadiums and on its way to an historic landslide in the 2015 General Election. The party had power at Holyrood, money in the bank, standing support for separation at 45 per cent and was about to be handed an unmatched opportunity in Brexit.

Nicola Sturgeon got all six numbers plus the bonus ball but has yet to cash in the ticket. It’s no wonder some in her movement are starting to wonder if she’s lost it.

Brexiteers have taken a cause once on the margins of parliamentary business and made it the only item on the order paper. Dragging Scotland out of the UK has been the Scottish Government’s main priority for almost a decade now but the First Minister has made a lot of noise yet only modest progress in her five years at the top.

Opponents berate her to ‘get back to the day job’ of running the country but inside the SNP, where Sturgeon’s remit is delivering independence, they know how much benefit there is in having her doing the day job.

The First Minister is rightly regarded as a superior political tactician. On Brexit, however, she has been out-manoeuvred. Her loyalists and her opponents, the Scottish Press and the London commentariat all assure themselves she has a cunning plan and is merely waiting for the right moment to pounce.

It’s easy to fall under Sturgeon’s spell but when the enchantment wears off you see at last a clever but limited politician struggling to live up to the expectations everyone has invested in her. Once you are out from under her sway, you see Sturgeon’s mercurial decisions, widely written up as strategic triumphs, as a series of obvious errors.

She fired the starting gun on a second Scexit referendum the morning after the EU vote. It was a mistake and it was Sturgeon’s mistake. She jetted around the capitals of Europe pretending to hold bilateral talks on Scotland’s future, which only underscored what little purchase she and her government enjoyed on the Continent. That was a mistake and it was her mistake.

She adopted a policy of total opposition to Brexit, then a new one of the Norway option; dragged her feet on a People’s Vote, then became its loudest champion; retailed blood-curdling warnings about no-deal, before instructing her MPs to vote against a deal. These too were mistakes and again they were Sturgeon’s.

Even on her own terms, Sturgeon has done little to make her mark. Joanna Cherry has done more to stymie Brexit in court than a First Minister with an entire government and the UK’s third-largest political party at her disposal. If this is not failure, what exactly would failure look like?

In her blundering, the SNP leader has been ably assisted by her point-man at Westminster. Ian Blackford, a huff in a suit, has fumed his way through hours of parliamentary questions and speeches, and even led a cringe-making walk-out stunt last year. All of it to no avail.

In his previous career in the City, Blackford may have moved markets at the press of a button but as Westminster leader he has been a liability from the start.

Sturgeon’s bad calls and Blackford’s bad performances have not hampered Brexit but they may have made the path to Scexit more fraught than it need be. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the next election produces a minority Labour government and that Jeremy Corbyn trades away a second Scexit referendum in exchange for confidence and supply. Let’s allow, too, that the Leave side wins that plebiscite.

Prior to Sturgeon’s sore-loser Brexit strategy, that would have meant Scotland leaving the UK by a mutually agreed date. Not now, though. Over the last three years, the First Minister has established a slew of precedents that would come back to haunt a vote for Scexit.

The losing side would be under no obligation to accept the result and move on, and they would be able to cite Sturgeon’s own statements in their defence. Unionist politicians would be well within their rights to lobby the UK Government directly to undermine Bute House’s position.

Westminster could drag out negotiations on the working agreement on a split to allow time for a People’s Vote on the terms of Scexit. How could this First Minister argue against what is, after all, her own oft-stated position? Given the SNP’s participation in legal action and parliamentary push-back to frustrate Brexit, the party could not object to opponents at Holyrood replicating their strategy.

Nor would these moves be open only to Unionists. The Greens could use their leverage to demand a more radical exit deal while SNP backbenchers in favour of quitting both Westminster and Brussels could play merry havoc on Sturgeon’s preference for a smooth transition to EU membership. She has left so many hostages to fortune that winning a second referendum would mean only an opportunity, not a guarantee, of Scotland splitting from the UK.

There is a lot of talk these days about internal strife within the SNP and how the old dynamic of gradualists-versus-fundamentalists is back. More accurately, that fault line has resumed between two new categories: the Sturgeonistas and the Salmondites.

The former are loyal to the current First Minister and swear she is the best chance the party has of achieving Scexit. They were mighty pleased with themselves when they routed an amateur attempt to force a debate on ‘Plan B’ (separation without a referendum) at SNP conference in Aberdeen.

The Salmondites aren’t necessarily enamoured of taking radical gambles with independence. They do not see themselves as the risk-takers. The Salmond approach won an improbable majority at Holyrood and secured for Scotland the first breakaway referendum in 300 years. Sturgeon lost that majority and cannot clinch a fresh constitutional ballot even in the middle of a British constitutional meltdown.

Some Salmondites want to see the man himself back but many others simply long for a leader with his strategic skills and passion for the cause. A better name for them might be the ABNs — Anyone But Nicola — because above all they want a winner and seriously doubt whether she is one anymore.


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

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