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The last parliamentary year has been out of control

Mandy Rhodes - Holyrood Magazine

The last parliamentary year has been out of control

Maybe it does feel as if politics has never felt more bonkers but then it was only this time last year that the newly resigned Scottish Labour leader was preparing to eat animal anuses in the Australian jungle for money.

Whether that was a metaphor for politics in general or not, it is true to say that this has been a year of party political blood-letting, as parties on the left and the right tear themselves apart, with Labour currently accused of being anti-Semitic and the Tories attempting to draw a veil over its own problems with Islamophobia.

This may well have been a year of respite in terms of elections – the first vote-free zone in Scotland since 2014 – but it has not been in terms of the politics.

Brexit has naturally dominated everything, exposing Theresa May as a prime minister in name only, buffeted and limited by the factions within her own party.

And while she may continue to repeat the oxymoronic line that removing ourselves from the largest union of European countries will only enhance our standing on the world stage as ‘Global Britain’, events elsewhere would indicate how much more insular and isolated we would become.

And in this context, it is beyond parody that this chaotic UK government that appears leaderless, rudderless and that has lost its majority, could be taking the Scottish Government to the Supreme Court over the matter of constitutional competence.

In a year of bruising constitutional stand-offs, all with Brexit at their core, relationships between Scotland and rUK have sunk to an all-time low.

And with even the Scottish Parliament’s legitimacy to enact legislation to protect itself in the event of a power grab by Westminster post-Brexit being tested in court, the 20-year-old devolution settlement appears in pieces.

And with increasing signs of a no-deal Brexit that could take us off that cliff edge, the question here in Scotland will always come back to, what does this mean for us?

Nothing was more illustrative of how polarised Scottish politics has become than when I sat next to the CEO of RBS at a recent dinner as he painted a frank and frightening picture of what could happen – “very soon” – unless the UK Government brokers a Brexit deal. 

Frankly, he scared the proverbial crap out of me, and only compounded it by the fact that he wouldn’t be drawn on what he meant by “very soon” for fear of frightening us further. Regardless, I was left in no doubt at all that what we Brits face with a no-deal Brexit is a future of dystopian proportions.

And in that deep and dark context, obviously the first question Ross McEwan would naturally be asked by the Scottish journos present was about a second independence referendum!

There’s a special kind of ‘whataboutery’ that can ignore the clear and present dangers of Brexit and cut straight to the chase of Scottish independence, which currently isn’t even on the cards. 

But that is where we are at. Scotland has become so used to having binary debates about its future that even the terrifying prospect of a no-deal Brexit is reduced to ‘but how bad would independence be?’

The real prospect of independence has only been a serious issue for less than a decade, but it now dominates every political discussion.

Which is why the ruminations around a campaign for a ‘people’s vote’ on Brexit could be interesting. 

When I interviewed Nicola Sturgeon a year or so ago, she told me that she was inclined to support the idea of a second referendum on Brexit but, for obvious reasons, it would not be something she would instigate. 

And now a year on, with no deal a real prospect, with a Tory party in disarray and with Labour offering no real solution to traverse the demands of constituencies that voted out and whole nations that voted in, Sturgeon seems even less inclined to throw her weight behind a second vote on Brexit.

Why?

Support for Remain in Scotland has only hardened and with the FM’s opponents, Ruth Davidson and Richard Leonard, appearing to simply toe their UK party line, whatever that happens to be on a particular day, surely there is a political opportunity for the SNP to get behind a so-called people’s vote?

But the big danger for the SNP is what the polls are now showing: that there could be a UK-wide Remain vote and therefore, a potential cancellation or delay of Brexit. That would mean business as usual in terms of the already fractured constitutional relationship between Scotland and rUK and any potential advantage for the independence movement lost, along with the faith of some of the estimated 30 per cent of SNP supporters that originally voted Leave.

Clearly, Brexit has complicated things for the FM and her team, with no obvious uplift in terms of support for independence. But in a volatile political landscape, hers must be a waiting game. 

A second vote on Brexit is unlikely because it won’t get the parliamentary support at Westminster, so why risk any of your appeal by backing it?

A general election, forced by a weak UK government losing a meaningful vote on Brexit, is more possible, and in those circumstances Sturgeon must be ready to rally the troops and to argue her case more robustly for independence.

A more immediate eventuality could be the rumoured threat of an imminent Tory leadership contest that puts either Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg in charge. In that instance, rUK would never feel more foreign to those living north of Hadrian’s Wall. 

For a year that was meant to be defined by the UK ‘taking back control’, things have spiralled well out of it.

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