What’s a year or two between friends? Quite a lot, it seems – and even longer between sworn political enemies. Theresa May got her own back on the first minister of Scotland by refusing her request for a second independence referendum before Brexit negotiations are complete. That position sounds kinda reasonable – until you think it through.
By the time Brexit is signed, sealed and delivered, Scotland will be outside Europe having to fight its way back in. That’s not what 62% of Scots wanted when they voted to remain in June 2016.
Now though it clearly wouldn’t matter if continuing EU membership got 100% backing north of the border. The Scottish parliament – touted by Westminster as the most powerfully devolved in the world – must still meekly ask permission for a second referendum from a prime minister whose party has fewer MPs in Scotland than there are pandas in Edinburgh zoo.
Only in centralised Britain could that seem like anything but a democratic nonsense. It’s clear the prime minister has roundly and contemptuously rejected every attempt by the Scottish government to achieve a differentiated settlement within the UK. Nicola Sturgeon delivered an options papers in December and has yet to receive the courtesy of a formal reply. So it was predictable the Scottish first minister would finally break ranks and decide she and Holyrood had been snubbed one time too many – and equally predictable that this prime minister would play hardball and throw Sturgeon’s request straight back in her face.
So who will blink first? And whose suggested timing makes most sense? The Scottish first minister wants another referendum on independence between autumn 2018 and spring 2019 in the belief that if Scots vote yes before the end of Brexit negotiations, Scotland could remain in the EU and avoid most of the great reform bill chaos which will soon gum up the works in Westminster. A pre-Brexit settlement of the Scottish independence question would also protect EU nationals living north of the border if – as expected – May doesn’t get round to that basic act of enlightened self-interest fast.
Plus, the 2018-19 timescale fits the prime minister’s own negotiating timetable – unless hard Brexiters within her cabinet crash the UK out of talks without any deal in the next few months.
The main thing Scots need to know is whether Britain will still be in the single market, and it’s already pretty obvious we won’t. All that remains to be seen on the UK side of the argument is whether substantial new deals can mitigate that monumental economic mistake. May’s sweetheart deal with Donald Trump may excite some south of the border – particularly those who want to complete her government’s destruction of the English NHS by opening everything to competition from American companies – but good luck selling that as a booby prize to Scots whose NHS, schools and prisons are in nothing like the constant crisis overseen by the Westminster government.
So what happens next? An unofficial poll? I dinnae think so. A climbdown by Sturgeon to accept a 2020 or 2021 poll just before the next Holyrood elections? I dinnae think so either.
The Scottish first minister will keep jumping through the parliamentary and legal hoops to reach the starting line for indyref2 in the hope and expectation that every false move made by May will add to the clamour for another way out for Scotland. As Sturgeon put it: “The prime minister is intent on sinking the boat – now she’s slashing the lifeboats to make sure the Scots can’t escape the fate she has visited upon the UK.”
There’s been no campaigning yet to demonstrate why an alternative to crashing out of Europe is worthwhile
Meanwhile, the prime minister is placing all her faith in polls that suggest most Scots don’t want a second indyref – and she’s probably right. At the moment, only the committed yes supporters could handle the instability of another referendum heaped on the uncertainty of Brexit. But there’s been no campaigning yet to demonstrate why an alternative to crashing out of Europe is worthwhile. There’s been no attempt yet to translate the obscure worry about trade in the EU into more tangible things such as job security.
If a motorway is about to be built through your house you must begin efforts to find a new home – before a single bulldozer appears. With few tangible economic downsides to Brexit yet, it’s no surprise many Scots still hope they can stick their collective heads in a bunker and come out again in five years when the mess has been tidied up and life has returned to normal. But guaranteed economic safety isn’t round the corner with either solution – it depends how long it takes before Brexit starts to bite.
So will May’s negotiations with Europe be sufficiently public, painful, and unpleasant to act as a recruiting sergeant for Scottish independence? Former Better Together activist John McKee thinks they will. He writes: “Sturgeon has shown herself adept at exploiting minor knife-like grievances, like devolution of agriculture powers from the EU, but this hands her a claymore … Worst of all about the formulation May chose, is that it is completely unsustainable. ‘Now is not the time’ will only begin the furious and ultimately irresistible demands for May to say when is the time?” That’s a very good question. The arm-wrestling contest between May and Sturgeon has started – but it’s nowhere near over.