A new world order: The last 12 months in review

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 3 September 2017 in Inside Politics

From Brexit to the general election, as well as the question of a second independence referendum, it has been a chaotic 12 months in UK politics

Image credit: Aimee Wachtel

​Nicola Sturgeon will be looking ahead to the forthcoming Holyrood term with a mixture of caution and calculation as she tries to reposition Scotland in the new world order.

Like Robert the Bruce musing on the spider’s web, the First Minister has been lying low following a series of humbling battles, trying to join the dots in an increasingly intricate political tangle.

Some have interpreted Sturgeon’s relative reticence over the summer – long periods of silence punctuated by the odd festival appearance – as a sign of a leader in turmoil, wrongfooted by Theresa May’s general election which left all parties, including the SNP, badly burned by the Tories’ scorched earth gamble.


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Others think the First Minister is merely biding her time, waiting for the inevitable Brexit arguments to reach their nadir and plotting her next strike at the British establishment.

There are undoubtedly some interesting times in the year ahead, but in Scotland there is a sense that all parties are struggling to find the right message.

Sturgeon has shelved the threat of independence (for now) and crippled Ruth Davidson’s increasingly single-issue prospectus in the process, cornering “the only defenders of the Union” into their current role as just one more faction in the increasingly fractious Conservative Party.

Scottish Labour was similarly blindsided but unwittingly bolstered by Jeremy Corbyn’s shock electoral resurgence, and is now hitching its still wobbly bandwagon to his permanent election tour after years of dismissing him as the mad red in the attic.

The Greens were incensed when Sturgeon ‘reset’ her independence timetable, denying the Scottish Parliament the opportunity to demand a vote for independence before Britain leaves the EU and straining the parliamentary support mechanism that the minority Scottish Government needs to get its legislation through parliament.

Support for the Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, remains in the doldrums following the five-year coalition with the Conservatives that Scots aren’t quite ready to forgive them for (despite Scotland’s apparent new found love for the Conservatives).

The first term of the current Scottish Parliament got off with a bang with the double-whammy of a Scottish election which saw the SNP reduced to a minority government by Davidson’s barnstorming Scottish Conservatives, and the UK vote to leave the European Union against the wishes of the majority of the Scottish people.

Sturgeon immediately announced that her government would prepare for a second independence referendum, all but assured that she could get the legislation through parliament with the support of the Greens.

David Cameron resigned, sparking a leadership battle which had a bloodier end than the last act of Reservoir Dogs, and within days, Labour had launched its own failed coup, sparking a series of walkouts and the second leadership election in the space of a year.

Prominent Brexiteer Boris Johnson was an early frontrunner in the Tory race, with many suspecting he finally came off the fence late in the game, as the polls narrowed, precisely to position himself as Cameron’s successor.

But Boris didn’t count on being knifed in the back by his friend Michael Gove, who reportedly assured Johnson of his support, only to launch his own leadership bid, torpedoing Boris’s campaign but maiming himself in the blowback, with Tory members turning against treacherous Gove.

That left Theresa May to fight it out with Andrea Leadsom, who demonstrated that Gove was not the only Tory adept at self-immolation by choosing to contrast her experience “as a mother” to set herself apart from childless May.

Perhaps Leadsom was hoping to start a whispering campaign similar to the unsavoury comments that have followed Nicola Sturgeon over the years about putting political ambition over family.

May revealed that her childlessness was not her choice and Leadsom suffered a predictable public backlash, clearing the way for May to be appointed Prime Minister without the need for a final runoff.

In an exclusive interview with Holyrood later that year, Sturgeon also opened up about her struggle to start a family and revealed that she had suffered a miscarriage a few years earlier.

The two leaders met at Bute House on 15 July, with May keen to bolster her unionist credentials and affirm her willingness to “listen to options” to ensure Scotland’s voice is heard in the Brexit process.

But as May held the door open for Sturgeon, her Scottish Secretary David Mundell was trying to slam it shut by declaring that the First Minister’s compromise solution to keep Scotland in the European single market if the UK leaves was “fanciful”.

By this time, the bitter Labour leadership battle was gaining momentum with the rather undistinguished Owen Smith emerging as the only challenger. Corbyn won a convincing victory, posing a dilemma for Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale and his only Scottish MP at the time, Ian Murray, who had both declared their support for Smith.

Labour, like the Tories, was divided from top to bottom but it wasn’t plain sailing for the SNP either as the Brexit vote receded into the distance and the focus returned to domestic policy.

A damaging judgment by the Supreme Court on the Scottish Government’s divisive ‘named person’ legislation found some aspects of the proposal breached the rights to privacy and a family life under the European Convention on Human Rights. Education Secretary John Swinney announced a review, which has yet to be enacted, and a few days later he unveiled plans for an unrelated shake-up of school governance that would hand head teachers the power to direct funding to meet their own individual priorities – setting himself on a collision course with sceptical local authorities who feared that their powers would be eroded.

There were also ongoing party divisions over the SNP leadership’s refusal to announce an outright ban on fracking, with the Scottish Government sticking to its inconclusive moratorium. But as the party met for its autumn conference, it was clear it was still united around one policy.

Sturgeon teased delegates that she hadn’t forgotten “the I word” before closing the conference with a speech about another ‘i’ word altogether – inclusion.

The First Minister contrasted what she saw as an increasing divisiveness across the UK, and a creeping xenophobia around the world, with her ambition to close the attainment gap in Scotland.

Indeed, there were signs of an impending earthquake in the most powerful nation on earth as one of Scotland’s most infamous descendants closed in on the White House on a platform of building a wall to stem immigration from Mexico and imposing a travel ban on citizens from some predominantly Muslim countries.

Sturgeon revoked Trump’s ‘Global Scot’ business ambassador role for his outspoken attacks on Muslims, and remained unapologetic in her dislike for the new US President, while Theresa May tried to maintain cordial relations with the US government to avoid alienating another key trading partner at a time when it was becoming clear she would need all the friends that she could get.

May was portrayed as an isolated figure at an EU summit in December, while at home, her efforts to lock the UK Parliament out of the decision to trigger the so-called Article 50 process to take Britain out of the EU was heading for a showdown in court.

The SNP, never shy of exploiting constitutional uncertainty to further their own ends, insisted on representation in the Supreme Court case and sought to test one of the key concessions they secured in the aftermath of the independence referendum.

The Smith Commission, which was tasked with putting ‘The Vow’ of more powers if Scotland voted against independence into law, decided that the so-called Sewel Convention – designed to deter Westminster from legislating on devolved matters without Holyrood’s consent – should be written into law.

But there was a kicker. The Scotland Act which gave effect to the Smith powers stated that Westminster will not “normally” legislate on devolved matters without Holyrood’s consent, a significant fudge which meant the Sewel Convention still did exactly what it said on the tin – it remained a convention which could be conveniently ignored if the UK Government decided we were living in extraordinary times.

The Supreme Court also ruled that May would have to consult parliament before triggering Article 50. However, the ruling was simply a prelude to some hastily drafted parliamentary pantomime as it was clear the vote would sail through parliament in any event due to the Conservative majority and Labour’s reluctance to defy the will of the British people.

May finally outlined her Brexit strategy in her landmark Lancaster House speech in January, confirming her plan to take Britain out of the single market and rejecting any “half in, half out” solution which was seen as a pointed rejection of the SNP’s differentiated solution.

But the nationalists were unswayed and continued to promote ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’, teasing out the contradictions between the positions of Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale – who had publicly declared their support for staying in the single market – and their party leaders at Westminster.

As May prepared to trigger Article 50 in March, Sturgeon formally approached the UK Government for permission to hold a second independence referendum – and was swiftly rebuffed with one of the mantras that had become May’s stock in trade: “Now is not the time.”

And, frustratingly for Sturgeon, the Scottish people appeared to agree, with polls showing support for independence had barely moved since 2014 and support for a second referendum was plummeting even further. Many people who supported independence, it seemed, weren’t up for another vote on it anytime soon.

The SNP pressed on regardless with a debate on a second referendum on 22 March, but as news filtered through of a terrorist rampage on Westminster Bridge, unionist MSPs called for the debate to be suspended out of respect and started walking out.

May and Sturgeon had a tense closed-doors meeting in Glasgow a week later and emerged with no signs that the stalemate would be broken – so in the absence of any substantial developments, the Daily Mail provoked outrage by splashing on the leaders’ bare legs with the headline: “Never mind Brexit – who won legs-it?”

The silly season had arrived early, it seemed, and it was about to get a whole lot sillier when May, after months of saying an election was not necessary, announced a snap election.

Substantive policy discussion was once again suspended as the nation, still divided over Brexit, was sent back to the polling booths, but it soon became clear that May had nothing new to say.

May continued the Brexiteer trend of campaigning by soundbite. “Take back control” appeared to work during Brexit; “Now is not the time” was apparently going down well in Scotland, so May tried to convince the country that the best slogan for a divided party that had plunged the country into constitutional chaos was that they would be a “strong and stable” government.

The SNP, who at least had the excuse of being unprepared for another election, simply dusted off their 2015 manifesto with an extra bolt-on seeking a mandate to deliver ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’, which most politicians and commentators had already written off as dead in the water.

But there was something going on in the Labour Party. A nation that had been repeatedly told that Jeremy Corbyn was “unelectable” was apparently thinking about electing him. A leaked manifesto pledging to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail, the energy companies and the water industry went down a storm with those on the left who had felt abandoned during the Blairite years and Labour’s poll ratings started to surge.

There were even signs of a mini-revival in Scotland after a decade of Labour decline, with a slight increase in vote share and a deftly targeted campaign which saw them increase their seats from one to seven. For the first time, Corbyn, Dugdale and Murray appeared on a press release together, suggesting the electoral success had brought about an uneasy truce between Scottish Labour and the Corbynistas.

But it was the continuing march of the Conservatives that was the story of the election in Scotland, winning a devolution-era record of 13 seats and handing Ruth Davidson bragging rights as a major player in the Tory party. So it was with some degree of discomfort that May was forced to turn to the austere Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her crippled government, and give an assurance to her lesbian leader in Scotland that LGBTQ rights would not be eroded as a result of the deal with the Northern Irish opponents of gay marriage.

It was an election where everyone lost, but allowed all sides to claim victory, with the Tories winning the most seats but losing their parliamentary majority, Labour falling just short of winning the popular vote, and the SNP emerging with 50 per cent more seats than all the other parties put together but still feeling dejected that they were unable to repeat their barnstorming near clean sweep of 2015.

For Sturgeon, it was time to reflect on her independence strategy. Polls indicated that for every vote for independence she picked up as a result of Brexit, another vote was lost to the unionist side, with some erstwhile nationalists apparently disliking Brussels more than they dislike Westminster.

Another SNP skeleton fell out of the closet as the summer rolled on, when suspended nationalist Michelle Thomson was told she would not face charges over irregular property deals at her company and demanded an apology from Sturgeon for suspending her from the party. Questions are also being asked about Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell’s role as party chief executive, with some now questioning the validity of having a husband and wife team in the top two party posts.

With the Indyref2 campaign now kicked into the long grass, nationalists currently have no idea when they’ll get a say on independence again and appear to be getting restless.

Brexiteers are also on tenterhooks waiting for the EU withdrawal deal to take shape. Brexit Secretary David Davis provoked mutterings of discontent when he turned up for negotiations in July with nothing but a grin, while EU negotiators sat with stacks of comprehensive colour-coded files.

And Corbyn is on a permanent election campaign waiting for the Tories to collapse under the weight of their own divisions.

Meanwhile, the world is back on the brink of a nuclear conflict as North Korea flexes its muscles at an increasingly bullish Donald Trump, who threatened to rain “fire and fury” down on Kim Jong Un if he continues with his nuclear programme, potentially angering his allies in China and Russia.

There is an old, and apparently apocryphal, Chinese curse which bids enemies to “live in interesting times”. There will be undoubtedly interesting times in the year ahead – but it remains to be seen whether this is a blessing or a curse for Scotland, Britain, Europe and the wider world.

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