Nicola Sturgeon’s influence leaves Theresa May in a bind
Janan Ganesh: Tory enthusiasm for hard Brexit forces Scottish first minister’s hand
Nicola Sturgeon has earned herself some leverage over the Brexit negotiations themselves. Theresa May cannot sign off on hard exit terms without risking the loss of Scotland, three-fifths of whose electorate voted for the EU. Photograph: Justin Tallis/Getty Images
The strangest tribe in British politics are unionist anti-Europeans, which is unfortunate as several line the cabinet table. Having chosen to relinquish the UK’s principal export market and a say on the laws that govern it, they will now advise Scotland not to relinquish its principal export market and a say on the laws that govern it.
We could invite these people to walk us through their mercurial logic if we were not, as of Monday, managing its consequences.
Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to seek another referendum on Scottish independence has been coming since last summer. Brexit constitutes the “material change” that would, according to previous remarks by the first minister, justify another try at the secession that Scots rejected in 2014.
London’s recent enthusiasm for a brute exit – from the single market, from the customs union, perhaps from any formalised trade relationship – more or less forced her hand.
Polls have recorded no spike in nationalism until this month, and even now it is tentative. The price of Scotland’s oil exports has fallen since 2014. The euro is not much more attractive as an alternative to sterling.
To enumerate the risks is to assume, however, that a referendum is Sturgeon’s exclusive wish. The vexatious details of her announcement – she wants a vote between autumn 2018 and spring 2019 – suggest a parallel ploy.
She must know that Theresa May cannot contemplate a referendum during Britain’s negotiated departure from the EU, which the prime minister hopes to begin soon.
Sturgeon has tabled a request that is designed to be rejected, giving her, at the very least, a grievance with which to stoke nationalism.
She has also earned herself some leverage over the negotiations themselves. May cannot sign off on hard exit terms without risking the loss of Scotland, three-fifths of whose electorate voted for the EU.
The first would be death to her governing vision, the second would be unsurvivable.
These choices can be finessed but only up to a point. In the end, she must incite anti-Europeans or she must incite Scots. It is small consolation that about a million voters are both.
Over the weekend, British ministers did a good impression of a government primed to invoke article 50 any day now. After Sturgeon’s speech, official sources demurred, saying the plan was always to wait until the end of the month.
Without doubting their word, it was hard not to smell early signs of the first minister’s influence. She will emerge from the two-year talks as the leader of an aggrieved nation or as the check against the kind of exit that much of the rest of the UK wanted.
Either way, imagine the subsequent strain on the union. She can fail to secure a referendum and still leave the cause of nationalism strengthened for another day. And if the vote does come, she is better equipped than her predecessor to win it. Alex Salmond was a sinuous operator but Sturgeon is more emollient towards the many Scots with centre-right views, more attentive to the hard questions of currency and finance that undid the nationalists last time, less conspicuously mesmerised by the sheer sport of politics.
Her own party is many times the size it was back then and the consortium of forces assembled against it in a referendum campaign would be fractured, as Labour shrivels and Eurosceptic Tories decide they hate Brussels more than they cherish Scotland.
Against this, May’s best hope is to make Brexit a reality and then frame any subsequent vote for independence as a bigger risk than ever.
Remaining in the EU is one thing, re-entering it quite another. There are transitional complexities and the various barriers to admission.
It is even possible to imagine a brief spell in which Scotland, having faithfully voted for both unions, belongs to neither.
Project Fear then, all over again. It is a thin basis for a union but the prime minister is not spoilt for better ones. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017