Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘independence’

London and Edinburgh on collision course


The phoney peace is over.

When Theresa May assumed the prime ministership, one of the first trips – not for now a foreign visit – she made was to Edinburgh for talks on Brexit with First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Now it’s Sturgeon’s turn to come to London for talks with Mrs May along with the leaders of the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies.

When May went to Scotland it was all smiles and emollience from the new Tory leader –a wise move given Scots had voted to remain in the EU by a much wider margin than England and Wales voted to leave in the referendum a few weeks before.

It was no secret that many supporters of independence would now push for another Scottish referendum to prevent their country being dragged out of the EU against its will.

Twenty six months ago – yes time does fly – at the time of what was known as the Indyref, the supporters of Scotland staying in the Union with England had argued the country could only ensure it stayed in the EU if it remained in the UK

Many at the time, including myself, thought this was a hostage to fortune.

Prime Minister Cameron had already committed to hold the vote on Europe if he won the 2015 UK general election – and – as we’ve now seen – he could not guarantee an EU referendum would see a victory for what would become known as Remain.

The Scottish National Party had also foreseen this possibility and kept their options open on holding a second independence referendum by running for the Scottish parliament elections in May this year on a manifesto reserving the right to call a second referendum in event of a vote to leave the EU.

So when May met Sturgeon in Edinburgh she promised to listen and consult over Brexit, while Sturgeon largely kept her powder dry taking a wait and see approach to how the new UK leader would handle Brexit.

Two months and a Conservative Party conference later, it is clear Theresa May is veering towards a comprehensive break with the EU – hard Brexit – with pledges to restrict immigration and no guarantee of continued preferential access to the single market or possibly even the customs union.

There also seems to have been precious little listening and consultation with the Scottish Government either, despite strong legal arguments that Holyrood needs to consent to the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act.

In response, and probably reluctantly (despite what the London media and Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson might say), Nicola Sturgeon has started the process to legislate for another vote in Scotland on the whether to end the Union with England.

Number 10 sources have made clear May will block this.

The 2014 Scottish vote was legislated for by Westminster following an agreement between David Cameron and then First Minister, Alex Salmond, and clearly Cameron’s successor thinks she can veto another vote by refusing to pass the necessary legislation.

Mrs May might think this would be legally sound, but unless she wantes to boost support for independence in Scotland and provoke a constitutional crisis it wouldn’t be a wise course of action.

And the spin ahead of this week’s meeting in London, with May in danger of sounding patronising, is unlikely to help her convince Scots she really takes their concerns seriously.

The change from the cuddly rhetoric of listening and consulting to the ‘we’ll make the decisions on Brexit’ and dismissal of the SNP’s democratic mandate to consider calling a second referendum also indicate something else Scots are unlikely to miss.

It seems Theresa May doesn’t consider The Union a true union of equals – flying in the face of the rhetoric from London ahead of the Scottish referendum and the history of how the two countries came to form the UK in the eighteenth century.

But one thing is clear – the gloves are off and we seem set on course for a showdown over whether Scotland remains in the EU rather than the UK.

The unionist media in London and Scotland already seem to believe this is coming and have settled upon Scots Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, as the leader of the anti-independence campaign when the next indyref comes.

She is being given extensive coverage, much of it fawning, on the back of leading the Tories to second place in the Scottish election in May.

I’m not sure this is either justified or wise.

Yes, she led the Tories to their best ever result at a Scottish parliament election with 22% of the vote, but only seven of her MSPs were directly elected from constituencies rather than via the proportional vote for the regional lists.

It’s also worth noting she ran by downplaying her Tory credentials and the Conservatives only won one seat in Scotland at the 2015 UK election

Pro-independence supporters are also already exposing Ms Davidson’s Achilles heel – she is the leader in Scotland of the party that called and lost the Brexit vote which, as things stand, will take Scots out of the EU against their will.

On her side, First Minister Sturgeon is also on less than ideal political ground.

She has made clear she would not want to have another independence vote until it was clear she would win it and, at the moment, the limited opinion polling that’s been done since June 23rd doesn’t suggest a big shift has yet occurred since 2014.

It is very possible that once Article 50 is invoked and talks between London and Brussels get under way – probably next spring – the long-term economic damage from leaving the EU will be clearer and it will focus Scottish voters’ minds.

But Article 50 imposes a timetable on Sturgeon not of her choosing.

A second independence referendum would need to be held before the UK leaves the EU to improve the chances Scotland could remain with the minimum disruption.

All of this means tension between London and Edinburgh will intensify and a second indyef becomes a good bet.

Given the demographics of the first vote and the continued vibrancy of the pro-independence movement, it was already likely there would be a second bite of the cherry for supporters of Scottish independence.

Now, the Brexit vote and – as importantly – the way the government in London is approaching the upcoming talks with the rest of the EU are bringing the end of the United Kingdom ever closer.

Scotland and the UK election: sticks and stones …

When I was small and came back from school smarting from some insult, my father used to say to me “sticks and stones may break your  bones, but names can never hurt  you” and I used to think “well not always, words can have a real effect”.

I’ve been reminded of this by the coverage in the London-based media of the rise of the Scottish Natonal Party in the polls ahead of the UK general election in May.

This week for instance, former Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond, caused quite a stir telling the New Statesman magazine he would prevent a Conservative minority government taking power if his party held the balance of MPs after the election and support a Labour minority administration instead.

The SNP has already been attracting more attention than usual in the run up to a UK general election because, if opinion polls are correct, the party is on course to be the third largest party at Westminster with as many as 40 to 50 seats.

Add to this that despite losing last September’s referendum on Scottish independence when 55 % voted to stay in the Union, the SNP has also attracted thousands of new members topping 100,000 in an a country with a population of 5 million and outstripping the Liberal Democrats to become the third largest party in the whole of the UK.

Mr Salmond’s comments were partly intended to tweak Labour’s tail and counter the argument it has been making in Scotland where it has been trying to stave off a nationalist landslide by telling voters it is the largest party which gets to form the government after an election – which may be what usually happens but is not constitutionally pre-ordained, as Labour itself demonstrated after the 2010 election when it initially sought to hang on to power in a coalition despite coming second to the Conservatives.

In the English-based media, Mr Salmond’s comments have been condemned as anti-democratic. If after the election the SNP is indeed the arbiter of who gets to form a government – the argument goes – this could result in Scottish voters imposing a government on the rest of the UK which it didn’t vote for.

The Conservative Party is also trying to play on this with a poster of a giant Mr Salmond with a tiny Ed Miliband in his pocket.

Putting aside these same commentators – and the Conservative Party – did not seem to object on the occasions since 1979 when Scottish voters got a government in London they didn’t vote for, the idea it is undemocratic for voters in one part of the UK to freely cast their ballots for the party of their choice risks suggesting those voters are somehow second class.

Scots, like the independence supporting Proclaimers, lamented in vain in the 1980s about “what to do you do when democracy fails you” .

The problem is the tone of much of this commentary has become increasingly hostile and insulting.

Even the liberal Guardian’s Steve Bell – well known for his hard-hitting cartoons – has portrayed Mr Salmond and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, in ways many found hard to imagine him doing if they were Jewish or black, rather than white Scots.

Notably, one of the better pieces on Mr Salmond’s gambit by the former Times Editor, Simon Jenkins, couldn’t resist portraying Scotland as living off English “subventions and subsidies” which is a strongly contested argument that appeals to English prejudices and ignores that Scotland’s contribution to UK GDP is roughly equal to its contribution to taxes, not to mention the benefit the whole of the UK has derived from North Sea oil and gas revenues over the past few decades.

Towards the end of the Scottish referendum campaign when it appeared the opinion polls were closing, London-based commentators and politicians were telling Scottish voters how much they valued their contribution to the Union, but last September now feels a long time ago.

Whatever the outcome of May’s election, the SNP is clearly popular at the moment in Scotland and the increasingly vituperative tone of the campaign and commentary in England over the way Scots might vote could provoke a backlash fuelling support for the SNP – and independence – and risking the end of the Union these commentators and politicians say they hold dear.

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