How did Theresa May’s Scottish Conservative party conference speech go down? Ah dear. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
“Government is not a platform from which to pursue constitutional obsessions,” said the Tory leader, even though she is presiding over the economic and social nightmare that is Brexit, brought on by her own party’s constitutional obsession with Europe.
Nicola Sturgeon should “get on with the day job”, said the prime minister currently presiding over an omnishambles in every aspect of domestic life. Of course, Scotland’s first minister has questions to answer about educational attainment and a fumbled farm payments system. But one benefit of watching network news these days is wall-to-wall coverage of the domestic difficulties of life in England under the Tories.
There’s a crisis in every aspect of civic society – prisons, hospitals, schools, you name it – and respected individuals are talking openly about crisis conditions within it. Yet May has the audacity to drift north and lecture Scots about the quality of governance? Conditions in many sectors are measurably worse south of the border, where the market runs key services such as health.
As for May’s claim that the Scottish government isn’t coming up with policies and is focused instead on criticising Brexit – what else would a Scottish government do when handed a mandate by its voters on a crucial subject such as Europe? Ignore the 62% of Scots who want to remain?
What has been roundly ignored to date has been the Scottish government’s options paper – still the greatest amount of ink on paper by any government relating to Brexit. It suggests ways to keep Scotland inside the single market, and was presented to the British government in December. To date there has been no official response: all there has been is backtracking.
After promising that powers returning from Europe would be devolved, it now looks as if control over agricultural and fishing subsidies will stay at Westminster when they return from Europe. Yet when SNP politicians seek clarification – as the SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, did in prime minister’s questions this week – they are dismissed like stupid, unruly children.
“My way or the highway” is the standard British government response to pleas for opt-outs or flexibility. But behind the scenes, opt-outs aplenty are being considered for constituencies that matter to May – naturally Scotland is not among them.
Top of her priority list is the City of London whose powerful remain-voting bosses are thoroughly panicked by the prospect of banks leaving en masse once article 50 is triggered in March. UK government ministers insist the threat of banking departure is exaggerated, but there’s been much speculation in the financial press that Britain will offer to keep paying into EU coffers to retain “passporting” for the UK’s financial sector and persuade those “quivering” bosses to stay.
Likewise, the car manufacturer Nissan has apparently obtained some assurance from May, which means it can keep producing cars in the UK. If there is a Nissan opt-out from expected post-Brexit tariffs of 10% on car exports, will other car manufacturers stand quietly by? And if car manufacturers are given special treatment what about other industries?
The Spanish government says the only way citizens of Gibraltar can retain freedom of movement is joint sovereignty – so May is under pressure to devise an opt-out for the tiny enclave, where 96% voted to remain.
And of course there is the special and delicate problem of Ireland – both sides of the border voted to remain in the EU, mostly because membership removes the vexed problem of an internal border. If there is a bolder geographical fix offered to Northern Ireland, Scotland will be the only important player left out in the cold.
That’s why independence is becoming an option for many people who voted no two short years back – many on the back of a cast-iron assurance that the only way to stay in the EU was to stay in the UK.
Now it’s evident that precisely the opposite is the case. And while Europe isn’t necessarily the most powerful part of the constitutional debate, jobs, economic stability and trading prospects certainly are. There’s no doubt Brexit has created a massive material change to the case for Scotland staying in the union. It’s true there hasn’t been an equally large movement in the opinion polls yet – partly because folk fear more upheaval during a time of upheaval, and mostly because the Scottish government hasn’t actively begun campaigning for a second referendum yet. Of course, Sturgeon is rattling sabres, but for the last six months, she has been trying to find a solution within the union – to little avail.
The only people constantly talking about Scottish independence are the Tories – yet if interviewers ask if the UK government would grant a section 30 order (the mechanism to let the Scottish parliament run such a poll), Ruth Davidson and May suddenly turn coy and say they can’t discuss a request that hasn’t yet been made.
May and the Scottish Conservatives are currently waging a phony war over Scottish independence because their own party’s record is woeful. The Scottish government will trigger another referendum when May has fully demonstrated how little Scotland means in the dangerous game of Brexit. We may not be waiting long.