NICOLA Sturgeon knocked for six those pundits who in the last few days and weeks have taken her to task for apparently dithering over the thorny choices she faces in the matter of Brexit and its consequences. One or two have even speculated that she might be looking forward to the day when she can retire from the grind of a battle that has up to now been so unrewarding.
But she came out fighting yesterday with a series of challenging strategic moves that will cause dismay in London at a crucial juncture, just as the Prime Minister is about to send the letter of goodbye and good riddance to the EU. Straight after Nicola’s no doubt ecstatic reception at the SNP conference over the weekend, she will ask Holyrood to vote for a Section 30 order authorising a second referendum on Scottish independence. Holyrood, thanks to the assured support of the Greens, will agree.
The UK Government, which would otherwise have devoted the whole of next week to preparing for the first Brexit summit in Brussels on April 6-7, will need to divert at least a good part of its forces to this attack on the Scottish flank. Said a man from the BBC (must be right then): "They have been caught flat-footed here. They were focused on the Brexit Bill and laws today and Nicola Sturgeon has just thrown this bombshell announcement that she wants to begin the process for a second independence referendum."
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The resources of the British state are already being stretched by the daunting demands of the coming negotiations with the EU. How they will cope with indyref2 on top is anybody’s guess. It couldn’t happen to a nicer lot of chaps, or chapesses.
Only a couple of weeks ago Theresa May stood up in front of the Scottish Tory conference in Glasgow and conceded that for too long the attitude in Whitehall had been to "devolve and forget". Now we see that her diagnosis of the malady was not the same as a cure for it. On the contrary, Nicola’s disenchantment at the reception she has met with during her approaches to London – “a brick wall of intransigence” with “not even an inch” of compromise – can now surely be personalised on the Prime Minister.
Not for 300 years has any of the latter’s predecessors faced both a major realignment in foreign affairs, and in domestic affairs a threat to the integrity of the British state. It really must be wondered if rigid intransigence is the right response in such a crisis, with its awesome requirements of both high statecraft abroad and campaigning conviction at home. But it is not clear May is capable of any other response.
Sometime between the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2019 we will find out, but we should be under no illusion that the demands on Scottish capabilities are going to be equally fierce, given that the stakes are so high. This time it really will be now or never for an independent nation, in a decisive battle that offers no hope of living to fight another day – or at least not for a very long time. I must confess I have been wary of the calls for an early referendum and in my columns I have tended to swither about it, simply because I shrink from a referendum that we cannot be reasonably sure of winning. But once the referendum is called, in whatever circumstances, the column will have no more doubts, and the big question will be how the campaign can do better than last time.
In one way there will be a kind of structural difference between the referendum of 2014 and the referendum of 2018/9. At that first trip to the polls, the choice before us was between the familiarity of the old British state and the prospect of a new Scottish state. The British state has many defects, shows a deep inability to reform itself effectively and so has been in visible decline since the Second World War, yet through its own delusions of grandeur remains rather oblivious of this. An alternative Scottish state, semi-emergent since 1999, has been sluggish in setting its own house in order but on the whole has made a reasonable fist of things; at any rate, hardly anybody wants to go back to the days before it existed, and to the remote direct rule from Westminster we had then.
When the drama of a referendum gets into its second run, the two leads will have changed their costumes. We will no longer have the comforting old UK, in John Major’s memorable image: “that country of long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, green suburbs, dog lovers, and old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist”. It was only a little more than 20 years ago, yet it has already been replaced by a country of housing bubbles, bent bankers and hatred of immigrants, not just the black ones as of old, but even white ones if they originate in the EU: the Polish plumbers and the hands who come over from Hungary for the harvests of haricot beans. Yet this country, which seems to me to have got thoroughly mixed up about the principles of economic freedom, is supposed to reconquer a commercial empire in its name. This is the UK of the hard Brexit.
Still, I’m not sure the Scots have been very much quicker learners. For those of us who voted Yes in 2014, that referendum was a chastening experience. But among activists the resulting dejection has seldom been a spur to any deeper analysis of what went wrong in the polling booths. It strikes me that major groups who voted No then – older people, richer people, the self-employed now being screwed by Chancellor Philip Hammond – are unlikely to see much reason for changing their minds now when they consider their own self-interest, as they are perfectly entitled to do. This is because, among many Yes campaigners, the main reaction has been not any analysis of defeat but merely a resolve to shout louder.
If the Scottish Government is to win the referendum of 2018/9, it has to become aware of wider social and economic necessities and more responsive to them, rather than viewing the country the whole time in a sort of golden proletarian glow. Instead it should reach out to those crucial margins of the population which have never seen in nationalism any answers to their problems, not least because nationalists have offered them no answers.
I think it is great that ex-MSP Andrew Wilson is now heading a growth commission that before long will start the overdue process of dragging the Scottish economy into the 21st century. But why was he not set to work a decade ago, when the SNP first came to power? At least now he has a couple of years till the next referendum to bring us out of the never-never land of inclusiveness and sustainability, and down to earth into a nation that, in every sense, will work.
“What kind of country do we want?” the First Minister asked yesterday on behalf of all of us. A country of hard Brexit is certainly an unpalatable choice, but we must not kid ourselves that just any old alternative will be enough to lead us to independence.