Nicola Sturgeon has no clear plan for Brexit

Scotland’s first minister’s ideas are full of logical contortions and inconsistencies

First minister Nicola Sturgeon, the first foreign serving head of government to address the Seanad, says Scotland will "support unequivocally" an open border for Ireland in the wake of Brexit. Video: Oireachtas TV


Somebody at Westminster has a sense of humour or history or quite possibly both: when the Scottish National Party’s new MPs were settling in following last May’s general election, some were amused to discover a bust of Charles Stewart Parnell had been placed in their whip’s office.

The cool countenance of the legendary Irish Home Rule leader now gazes at Alex Salmond and his colleagues as they occasionally flex their parliamentary muscles, just as he and dozens of Irish Parliamentary Party MPs did more than a century ago. History, as they say, repeats.

Indeed, the word “historic’” was much deployed during the Scottish first minister’s recent visit to Ireland, members of the Seanad showering Nicola Sturgeon with praise as if a modern-day Parnell was in their midst.

The backdrop for the first minister’s visit was obviously Brexit, something Sturgeon predicted would shape Scottish and British politics for decades to come. Yet while it clearly isn’t the job of Irish parliamentarians to keep across the detail of the post-Brexit dynamic, several bought too easily into (Scottish) nationalist orthodoxy.

This holds that Scotland and Northern Ireland, unlike England and Wales, did not vote to leave the European Union and thus June’s referendum was a democratic outrage. The dominant narrative goes on to argue that, consequently, either the UK helps contrive a means by which Scotland can stay part of the EU or there will be a second independence referendum which will most likely be won.

Complicated arena

That, as I say, is the orthodox view, but the reality has rather more shades of grey. It will not come as any surprise that the leader of the SNP wants the nation she leads to be independent. Not only has Brexit not been the game-changer she and many others expected (and indeed hoped) it would be, but far from clarifying the independence proposition, it actually complicates it.

Sturgeon is fighting on a number of different fronts. In legal terms, her lord advocate, Scotland’s chief law officer, will be pressing the Scottish government’s case as the UK supreme court meets in London this week, while politically the first minister not unreasonably reminds her opponents that her party’s most recent manifesto pledged another referendum should there be a “material change” in circumstances, ie Brexit.

That is undoubtedly where she wants to end up. But for the moment, Sturgeon is playing for time, her strategy being to demonstrate to Scots that she’s exhausting every available option before reluctantly (ahem) reaching the pre-ordained conclusion that independence is the only option. The first minister’s recent two-day trip to Ireland formed part of that ongoing plan.

The Scottish government, in other words, desperately needs European allies. This, however, is where political reality collides with nationalist expectation: as several EU member states have made crystal clear, they intend to negotiate with the UK rather than a devolved part of the UK. As former taoiseach John Bruton put it recently, ending up with different markets with different sets of rules in different parts of the UK would be “technically, administratively and politically nearly impossible”.

UK-wide ballot

For June’s EU ballot was, it’s worth remembering, a UK-wide ballot, not something conducted simultaneously in each part of the island like the Belfast Agreement referendum of 1998. Politically, of course, it suits the SNP to subdivide the outcome, but constitutionally or legally such an argument doesn’t lead anywhere useful.

Orthodoxy also holds that while Theresa May and all the other Little Englanders are currently flailing around (which they are), Scotland’s first minister is the only grown-up with a “plan”. But if that’s true, the detail has yet to emerge and, embarrassingly for the Scottish government, most options floated so far – from a “reverse” Greenland to Scotland joining, like Norway and Iceland, the European Economic Area (EEA) – have either been rejected by experts or run counter to the SNP’s previously stated positions.

Of course, Sturgeon is good at exuding an air of authority when discussing such matters, as she told the Seanad she was once a lawyer, but everywhere there are logical contortions. The first minister was quick to unequivocally reject a “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, yet the logical consequence of her preferred “plan” would be a similar barrier between post-Brexit England and EEA Scotland. The SNP also remains undecided as to currency, while maintaining the fiction that the EU single market is somehow more important to Scotland than the rest of the UK.

Scottish nationalism

But the true weakness of contemporary Scottish nationalism, however good and progressive it appears across the Irish Sea, goes much deeper than these complex if ultimately logistical considerations. In her speech, Sturgeon conceded that it wasn’t enough simply to “assert” the “principles of an open economy and a progressive, liberal democracy” but it was necessary also to “demonstrate the benefits of these values”.

Although this most likely wasn’t meant to be an admission of failure, given that the SNP is approaching its 10th anniversary in charge of Scotland’s devolved government, that’s what it looks like. For beneath the lofty rhetoric about tackling inequality and promoting social justice, the Scotland of 2016 is about as close to matching such ideals with action as Ireland was 10 years after its 1916 declaration.

Senator Michael McDowell gushed about the “huge” achievements of the SNP, but that isn’t how it looks to many in Scotland. Recent polling shows declining support not only for independence, but also the SNP and its handling of education, the NHS, justice and the economy. Key are those who voted Yes in 2014 but Leave in June – you might call them absolute sovereigntists – and they appear increasingly unlikely to back leaving one union only to stay in another.

Unlike her predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon appears to have little interest in Irish history, but she might do well to study Parnell, who famously took his movement so far but no further. Home Rule for Scotland is no longer as “inevitable” as some members of the Seanad appear to think.

David Torrance is a Scottish journalist and author of Nicola Sturgeon: A political Life.

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