Theresa May is either inadvertently or deliberately making an independence referendum more likely
Last week at a private dinner attended by half a dozen or so of Scotland’s political editors, convened to talk about, among other things, Brexit, we realised at the end of the evening that for once, we had discussed world events without ever mentioning the ‘I’ word.
And then we saw a tweet previewing the headline running along The Herald’s splash for the following day: ‘Support for independence surges on hard Brexit vow’.
And so with a poll revealing that backing for a Yes vote had risen to 49 per cent, our temporary but quite unintentional prohibition was lifted. It was, we agreed, the unpredictability of fast-moving and sometimes quite inexplicable events that meant none of us could say, with any real certainty, what would happen next.
Being fat is a class issue, and Scotland needs a radical obesity strategy
Sketch: Lentils, watermelons and the budget
Henry McLeish: A hard Brexit undermines the spirit of the Union, but the SNP needs a better case for independence
After all, it was only hours before that MSPs had voted against the triggering of Article 50 in a vote that Nicola Sturgeon may have described as one of the most significant to be taken in the Scottish Parliament since devolution, but in effect it had no teeth.
Contrary? Maybe. But in a month that has seen the Supreme Court block the UK Government by-passing parliament on the triggering of Article 50, only to see MPs vote for a bill that they largely did not support; and for all Scottish MPs, bar one – the Tory – to vote against, then Sturgeon could argue, and does, that she is on the right side of the Brexit argument. Certainly for Scotland.
The Scottish Parliament’s meaningful but meaningless vote came on the same day as the UK Brexit minister, David Jones, during the second day of the committee stage of the Article 50 bill at Westminster, said that while the government was prepared to offer MPs a vote on the deal before it was voted on by the European Parliament, this concession was not really such, but merely a sop.
“Let me be clear,” said Jones. “We’re calling it a concession because we need to be seen to be making a concession. But to avoid any confusion, this concession is most definitely not a concession.”
Confused? You will be.
Brexit is taking us in nonsensical directions. And it was with this backdrop of contradictions and chaos that the Scottish minister responsible for our exit from the European Union walked into Westminster for a scheduled meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee without, in what was perhaps a symbolic sign of these confusing times, having been told which room the meeting was to be in.
Timing is of course everything when it comes to negotiations and so Mike Russell, having navigated his way to the correct rendezvous, might well have thrown a copy of The Herald with its ‘Independence surge’ headline onto the JMC meeting table with a flourish and watched to see which of Theresa May’s lieutenants blinked first.
Of course this is just one poll, and while the nationalists may celebrate, it does still predict they’ll lose. But it is a warning shot. And political analysts tell me they are less interested in the actual poll than some of the undercurrents they say are being detected, and that is without one shot being fired in an actual referendum campaign.
And in some respects, it’s hard to imagine a better set of circumstances for a second referendum: support for Yes either at a 2014 high or on the rise, a hard Brexit on the horizon and Sturgeon a popular leader even after 10 years of SNP rule.
But importantly for the Yes vote, Labour is in disarray. And for the party strategists behind the 2014 referendum, when the assumption was that Ed Miliband would be in No 10, with Corbyn as leader that’s an obstacle they no longer need to shift.
The prospect of a never-ending Tory government plays well into an SNP narrative for independence, as does a hard Brexit, images of Theresa May cosying up to Trump or a sneaky end to asylum for lone refugee children escaping from Syria.
Is this the country Scotland wants to be?
And will Theresa May care? Scotland is not her immediate concern and, frankly, not one she fully understands. Why would she? Her career at the Home Office meant she has had less contact with devolved institutions than many of her colleagues, and by all accounts she just doesn’t get it.
Her next test will be in the letter that triggers Article 50 and whether there is any detail that could appease. But it is unlikely. The Scottish Government was told just 24 hours before the UK white paper was to be published and then given just 40 minutes to digest it before it was released.
May is either inadvertently or deliberately making an independence referendum more likely while she tries to keep her own party together. Her choice is: Brexiteers or troublesome Jocks, and at the moment the line of least resistance must look like hoping that the Scottish dimension proves to be less troublesome than one might think it is.
Last week the Campaign for an English Parliament sent out a handy guide illustrating how the UK could look by 2020 with potentially an independent Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its acronym for what could become known as the ‘former United Kingdom’ might just hold a salutary lesson in there for Theresa May.