A Scottish thistle in Theresa May’s plans
Prime minister is hostage to a Eurosceptic party and unable to reach out to remainers – a hard Brexit looks unavoidable
Theresa May’s inability, indeed unwillingness, to manage or take account of the legitimate aspirations of remainers, whether in the Commons, in Scotland or in Northern Ireland, to share in the say of the shape of Brexit negotiations, is at one with her commitment to a hard Brexit.
But it has made Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for another referendum on independence inevitable, just as it may also be helping in Northern Ireland to lift support for another look at the idea of a united Ireland further up the agenda.
The British prime minister has been determined to limit the role of MPs in the Commons – they will get a simple Yes/No vote on the final deal despite a landmark court ruling in the Miller case that reiterated the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. And she has refused in principle even to consider making a case to the EU for a special status for Scotland or Northern Ireland within the single market.
Both positions reflect not just her traditional ideological unionism, but a Westminster executive centralism that despises devolution and even parliamentary oversight of government, and which reinforces that particularly severe form of unionism.
In a speech in Glasgow recently she promised to resist resolutely any further decentralisation/devolution, what had been seen by some as a possible carrot to nationalists; a “Brexit dividend”. Not to be. From outside there appears almost a devil-may-care “we’ll all go down together” quality to her rhetoric.
Sturgeon has played a clever, long tactical game, one that is reflected in SNP standing in the current polls for independence which are running at 50/50. She suggested that she was prepared to accept the inevitability of Brexit, but only a soft Brexit in Scotland’s case, preserving access to the single market.
And she asked May to meet her half way. Confident that no Tory would dream of doing so, Sturgeon was able to bide her time and can now play the “more in sorrow than in anger” card – “It’s not that we really want independence, we just don’t have any choice ...”
May, having now seen the article 50 Bill through the Commons and Lords and on its way to royal assent, has reiterated she will trigger the withdrawal process before the end of the month. Within a couple of days the EU commission will then issue a set of guidelines for talks – including discussions of how to determine the UK bill – which the Council will approve within weeks.
That will set in train at least two strands of fiendishly complicated and interdependent talks, those on the divorce settlement and those on a future relationship between the EU and the UK.
May’s inflexibility, hostage to a Eurosceptic party and unable to reach out to remainers, would suggest limited room for manoeuvre and a real chance that a poor outcome may be unavoidable.