14 October 2019

Nicola Sturgeon is trying to square an impossible circle

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As in comedy, so in politics: it’s all about timing.

The weekend’s flurry of media speculation about the prospects of another independence referendum coincided with polling showing that Scots are as divided over Scexit as the rest of the country is over Brexit, while Nicola Sturgeon appeared on the Sunday politics TV shows to set out the conditions her party will demand before offering its support to any UK administration led by Jeremy Corbyn.

And all of this is choreographed to frame the start of the SNP’s annual conference, where the First Minister will be under pressure (as is now traditional) to put some meat on the bones of her strategy for gaining independence.

Sturgeon has a difficult, and quite possibly impossible, circle to square. She has set her face against seeking independence via any route other than the one that created the template in 2014: a legitimate and legal referendum authorised, via the Scotland Act, by the UK government. The alternatives mooted by some of Sturgeon’s more excitable colleagues – assuming a mandate for independence on the basis of winning more than half of Scotland’s Westminster constituencies at the next general election, for example – risks plunging Scotland into a legal quagmire and dubious international status. Sturgeon has seen what happened in Catalonia and wants none if it.

All of which creates the difficulty she faces each and every year she takes to the podium to address her loyal and devoted activists. She has pledged to demand [sic] the necessary authorisation for another referendum from the Prime Minister before the end of the year. Her problem lies in the history of the last three years. Sturgeon committed the first of a series of untypical missteps when, on the morning after the June 2016 EU referendum, she hinted strongly that a second independence referendum was required to keep Scotland in the EU while the rest of the UK left.

The difficulty with this rhetoric, however welcome it was among die-hard nationalists, was that instead of calming an already flammable situation, it fanned the flames. And a year later her party paid a heavy electoral price when Scots voters, fed up with the turmoil that two constitutional referendums had caused in the past three years, removed 21 of her MPs from their posts.

Sturgeon has been more cautious since, and the polls suggest she has succeeded in restoring her party to the pre-eminence it enjoyed in the wake of the 2015 general election; another election this side of Christmas would likely see Labour again reduced to a single seat north of the border, while the Scottish Tories, deprived of their charismatic former leader, Ruth Davidson, might struggle to hold on to the gains they made in 2017.

Nevertheless, the SNP exists only to achieve a single thing; Sturgeon believes the mood music since 2017 has changed enough for her to be able to sell her vision of independence in Europe versus continuing Brexit chaos at Westminster. In this she is right: few people recall that when Theresa May called her snap election in April 2017, she was dominant in UK politics, a confident and stable figure who was sure she had all the right answers on Brexit.

But whatever confident and stable platform Sturgeon will offer this week, the bear traps ahead of her are obvious and likely to be unavoidable.

First, there’s that whole Section 30 business – the part of the Scotland Act that allows changes to the range of devolved powers Holyrood has. What if the authority to hold another independence referendum is not forthcoming from Boris Johnson’s government? It’s hard to describe the sheer astonishment and outrage there was in Scotland – at least among political and media types – when Theresa May refused to countenance this request back in 2017. A party that has grown used to Unionist capitulation in the name of consensus genuinely did not know how to react when the UK actually said no. And as the 2017 general election showed, Scottish public sympathy for Sturgeon’s dilemma was not much in evidence.

This much is clear: so long as there is a Conservative government at Westminster, there will be no more Scexit referendums. But what if there is a change in government?

Here we get to a major paradox for Scottish Labour. In 2015 it was nearly wiped out by the SNP after it campaigned vigorously against a Yes vote in the previous year’s independence referendum. Two years later it had recovered modestly enough to take advantage of a reluctance by some SNP supporters to turn out to vote: a rise of barely 9,000 votes across the whole of Scotland saw it gain six seats from the SNP. But Labour’s contradictory stance on whether it would allow a second Scexit referendum (Corbyn regularly says yes, as does Shadow Chancellor McDonnell, while Labour’s Scottish leader and MSPs say no), combined with its complex and double-facing policy on Brexit, put all its 2017 gains at risk.

Taking a hard line against independence would play to whatever remnant of the anti-Conservative Unionist vote remains in Scotland, but Corbyn’s obvious sympathy for independence prevents that from happening.

And so we end up back where we were in 2015, with an over-mighty Nicola Sturgeon laying out her demands to the UK Labour Party on whether, or if, a future Corbyn government will get SNP support. This could be a genuine offer on her part. Or it might cynically be seen as a deliberate attempt to recreate the circumstances in which David Cameron secured an overall majority by warning English voters of the dangers of a Labour government at the beck and call of the Scottish nationalists.

That strategy might well help her in her own back yard, in that it would help win back those Labour seats she lost two years ago, a defeat she sees as a personal slight. But her only chance of securing another legal, internationally recognised referendum is to ensure Labour are in government.

And then there’s Brexit. A former SNP government minister said recently that his party’s greatest fear is having to fight another referendum battle after Brexit has been completed: he doesn’t relish the prospect of telling North East fishing communities that they should vote to re-enter the Common Fisheries Policy. That being the case, Sturgeon may already have missed her opportunity.

Ian Blackford, her party’s leader at Westminster, has promised that Sturgeon will issue her latest demand for a Section 30 authorisation for a new referendum before the end of the year. Even if the October 31 deadline for Brexit is extended by three months, that doesn’t allow an independence referendum to get underway until well after Britain has left the EU. Which is why Sturgeon and her party so desperately want a second EU referendum as well, since it would at the very least push our departure date from the EU will into 2020.

But if a second EU referendum is held and (as is the hope of its supporters) Brexit is reversed, where does that leave Sturgeon’s argument that Scotland can only maintain its EU membership by leaving the UK? And if a second “confirmatory” referendum can be held on Brexit, why not on Scexit too?

And heading down the tracks towards the First Minister and her government is a criminal case against her former mentor and leader, Alex Salmond, which is due to dominate headlines in the early part of next year.

Apart from all that, it’s going swimmingly for Nicola Sturgeon. So long as she gets the timing right.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'