Read her lips: Nicola Sturgeon has been very clear since opening the 2016 SNP conference what her game plan is. She said it on Thursday, Saturday and again on TV on Sunday: keep Scotland inside the EU’s single market even if the rUK quits and opts for the certain shipwreck of WTO membership.
She told Andrew Marr: “We are going to put forward proposals, that we would hope that the UK Government would be prepared to listen to, that would allow Scotland to preserve its place in the single market and preserve aspects of its relationship with the EU.”
She repeated her earlier remarks – as most commentators had simply ignored them – that the Scottish Government would soon publish proposals on how Scotland could do precisely that. These, arguably (and I certainly would argue the case), are more important, more telling, than the promise to publish a bill on a second independence referendum (#indyref2) and “consult”.
It was clear from even a short visit to the SECC in Glasgow, where 3000 delegates attended the UK’s biggest political party conference, that the “Realo” wing of the SNP sees membership of the single market in whatever guise as the route to enhanced powers for the SG. (Realo describes the realist wing of the German Greens in the late 1970s/1980s that led to participation in the SPD-led government of 1994 – and Realo leader, Joschka Fischer, as federal vice-chancellor).
The Friday afternoon debate on ‘Scotland’s place in Europe’ showed, however, that the “Fundi” (fundamentalist) wing remains in control of conference with an overwhelming rejection of the argument – put forward notably by NEC member Alex Orr – that it is far too early and risky to call #indyref2.
Many “fundis” insist that the aftermath of the June 23 vote, especially the xenophobic ENL/UKIP-style language of the Conservative conference and the contempt of the Three Musketeer Brexit ministers for parliamentary democracy/sovereignty and Scotland’s big pro-EU majority and interests, makes the case for #indyref2 before the UK ends the Article 50 process by late March 2019 unassailable. For them Brexit means Brexit – and independence.
The motion passed on Friday is, however, flawed in that it talks of keeping Scotland’s place in the EU (as well as Europe) – and, without independence and even then perhaps, that is undeliverable. So that will facilitate Nicola Sturgeon’s obvious quest to deliver continued single market membership and hence extra SG powers – a devo-max going well beyond what the Smith Commission offered such as potential control over immigration policy (via freedom of movement), employment rights, agriculture, fisheries, possibly VAT (See Kirsty Hughes on these pages).
Of course, as Kirsty points out, there’s no guarantee that this can be won – or that Theresa May would concede it. Who knows? Certainly, the UK government’s handling of the Brexit process so far has been arrogant – and amateur. It might even collapse ignominiously, prompting a rethink and a second #EURef as Donald Tusk hinted.
But it does provide Sturgeon the precious commodity of time to prepare the ground for #indyref2 and, critically, winning it. There will be no #indyref3. As matters stand, the case for independence economically and fiscally is weaker now than in 2014 – and the First Minister knows that. It’s not just that 9.5 per cent budget deficit but the bleak overall outlook for employment, inward investment, financial services, inflation, further impoverishment of already poor people as Sterling sinks. Not forgetting the wholly unresolved currency issue.
Of course, as Alex Salmond likes to point out, when he triggered the #indyref1 process, support for independence stood at just 27 per cent and it hovers between 40 and 50 per cent now. Equally, independence might unleash a wholly new economic (and social) dynamic.
But, then, so would continued single market membership in some form. That might enable Scotland to redirect its export activity towards mainland Europe that now accounts for just a quarter of the value of exports to rUK (£12bn v £48bn). Banks and services/manufacturing companies might relocate to Scotland.
Sturgeon would be able to claim ownership of that new dynamic. Right now, after nine years in power, there is little or no evidence of one. And the First Minister’s closing speech in Glasgow – long on emotion, short on policy apart from childcare vouchers (!) – sounded jaded, not reinvigorated. (And victory in next year’s council elections will simply pile up problems: a SNP-controlled Glasgow and/or Edinburgh won’t accept Derek Mackay simply dumping the entirety of spending cuts on local government as John Swinney has).
The FM is “realo” enough to treat enhanced powers for the SG post-Brexit as a gain in any SWOT analysis. As Prof Jo Shaw tweeted: “Independence, like devolution, is a process, not a thing. Home rule is seen as a staging post, I would suggest.” Of course, none of this may happen. Trump may defy the odds and win. So might Marine Le Pen. Unlikely still as both wins are, we’ve gone way beyond Mao’s wish for “interesting times”. Chronic uncertainty and insecurity are our lot now.