Who will blink first, Theresa May or Nicola Sturgeon? | Alex Bell

Alex Bell
‘The governments of Edinburgh and London are working from the same principles in opposite directions and it is about to come to a head.’ Photograph: Lesley Martin/AFP/Getty Images

Nicola Sturgeon observed today that, if there is another independence referendum for Scotland, it would be “common sense” to hold it in autumn 2018. Her comments stoke a constitutional fire.

For a state that until recently looked down on identity politics, Britain is undergoing a bizarre spasm of competing nationalisms. The governments of Edinburgh and London are working from the same principles in opposite directions, and it is about to come to a head.

At its heart are two leaders – both highly competent and determined – who aren’t prepared to back down.

When the UK voted for Brexit but Scots voted 62% to stay, it revived a Scottish nationalist movement that was looking a bit directionless. The same result gave Theresa May her opportunity to lead, regardless of whether it was in a direction she supported.

Sturgeon declared that another referendum was “back on the table” after the Brexit vote and, for a while, May had no clear response. Downing Street said the devolved nations would be consulted on Brexit. If the prime minister ever meant this, she has come to see that Brexit gives an opportunity to call the SNP’s bluff.

By insisting on a UK-wide deal with no concessions to Scotland, May appears to be willing Sturgeon into another independence referendum Downing Street thinks she’ll lose.

The prime minister presents a different version – she told last weekend’s Scottish Tory Conference that the UK was “one people” who would get one deal.

May’s motive, apart from not complicating an already fiendish negotiation with the EU, is to define the SNP as the unambiguous party of independence and the left, allowing the Tories to become the main opposition party in Scotland, standing for the union and business. In part, then, this is about who picks up support from the prolonged suicide of the Labour party.

The prime minister can only box in the SNP if she gives no concessions.

For a state that looked down on identity politics, Britain is undergoing a bizarre spasm of competing nationalisms

Equally, Sturgeon’s offer of compromise may have been genuine – Scottish government ministers swear it is so – but it would have allowed the SNP to fashion a Scotland sufficiently different from the rest of the UK that independence would only be a short step away.

Sturgeon has spent the past nine months sending flares into the sky warning of another vote, and would now find it hard to claim there was no emergency. Expectations are high that she will announce a desire to hold “Indyref2” within the next couple of weeks.

The Scottish government clings to the belief that voting for independence before the UK leaves the EU means Scotland may never have to quit Europe. There is no legal evidence for this, but in a time of general disruption, it’s a reasonable long-shot hope.

To hold any referendum requires Downing Street’s say so – it would grant a Section 30 of the 1998 Scotland Act, making it legal. It has become popular to say that May could not refuse a request by the Scottish parliament for a vote. Whether that is true, May could determine the timing, question and context – all of which were controlled by the Scottish government the last time round.

There are two ways this battle could continue: May blocks another referendum and the Scottish government uses this to stoke resentment, or she allows one at her own timing, and this also fuels political anger.

What is lost in the big picture is that the nature of the debate is changing. The SNP’s growth commission is expected to say Scotland does have a deficit and the first few years of independence will be tough. Second, the issue is becoming less about Scotland’s economic survival than the future of the UK – another referendum would be about the state in general. Downing Street may calculate that Sturgeon would lose, but that is a big gamble when traditionally loathed Tories are overseeing a chaotic Brexit.

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