Thanks be for the SNP conference in Glasgow. Someone has at last noticed the oncoming lights of the Brexit express, and the Nats have now (pretty well) committed to a People’s Vote.
Unnaturally, the European debate in Scotland has been eerily quiet as we shuffle towards the exit. The watchdog has not barked in the night.
But while the Scottish commentariat may have been dumbstruck by the enormity of the issue, or, like the nation’s footballers, unable to up their game in the European arena, the frailty of the UK’s devolution arrangements is there for all to see.
The Blair government’s devolution settlement in 1997 assumed that the UK’s geo-political zone was earthquake-free.
But without the de facto subsidiarity of the triangular Brussels-Westminster-Edinburgh relationship, suddenly the game’s a bogey. Lacking a formal or even familiar framework, the UK’s constituent nations are powerless in the face of insular English folly and a Westminster power grab.
While the Supreme Court wrestles with a decision over which powers currently invested in the EU will return to Holyrood, Westminster’s present attention to the future of the devolved legislatures since the Brexit vote has been perfunctory at best.
If the eventual redistribution of repatriated powers is not equitable, there’s a reasonable fear Holyrood could become the largest county council in the UK.
More than two years on from the referendum, there’s nothing in the current range of party political strategies to reassure the voter that next year’s frightening encounter with the cold reality of Brexit can be avoided – even in Scotland where an overwhelming vote favoured Remain.
This reprehensible disaster – disproportionately menacing for Scotland – is looming because the unwritten structures of UK government are ramshackle and complacent, allowing party priorities to trump the national interest. The country can no longer afford the genuinely democratic offer implicit in the post-World War II social settlement. Its antique governance can no longer cope with the radical change required by the country’s current circumstances. And its principal political parties have all (almost) lost their energy, focus and sense of public service. We are manifestly no longer “all in it together”.
A more sympathetic understanding of the nation the Conservatives were elected to lead is further handicapped by their strait-jacketed metropolitan perspective, and the crass indifference of the over-privileged toffs on the Government benches.
But, if they are harsh and unkind to most of their own citizens, the government’s approach to other countries is no better. The systematic and cynical blackguarding of Brussels by the very ministers for whom diplomacy should be essential – the Foreign and Brexit secretaries – is souring urgent negotiations which need to become positive very soon. Like, now.
A curious whiff of ambiguity, meanwhile, still hangs over Labour’s position on the EU under Corbyn, not to mention lingering doubt that they truly understand the indivisibility of the four freedoms and the non-negotiability of the single market.
Perhaps, that’s a symptom of the people’s party’s move away from centre-left, social democratic pragmatism. Because who in Scotland would cast their vote for Scottish Labour under Richard Leonard, now he’s made clear his preference for factional loyalty over talent?
The Liberal Democrat Party has no current claim to the top table, and isn’t even providing traction for the Remain argument.
Which then leaves the SNP faced with levels of responsibility undreamed of when Winnie Ewing demanded “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on”.
Denied independence in 2014, the party in government in Scotland has been cautious financially in a bid to retain as wide an appeal as possible in the run-up to any second referendum, in the face of mounting and justified criticism of its management of education, health and the police.
Scotland in Europe
But other countries of Scotland’s size thrive well enough within the EU to demonstrate that independence within the EU is not a mirage. Circumstances may rule out the creative suggestion of one recent letter to The Scotsman arguing that England should withdraw simultaneously from both the UK and Europe, leaving the EU membership of the other home nations intact and unbroken! With both time and options now so limited, rejoining at a later date is the only realistic approach.
The SNP’s passive leadership at Holyrood to date should not mask the fact that most of the essential infrastructure is in place for a competently run country to take its place in the EU. To complement the newfound need to deal with the worlds of trade and diplomacy, there are Scots of substance to be recruited who are able to provide diplomatic and negotiating competence. The purpose-built asset of Scotland Europa in Brussels, for many years now assessing EU developments from a Scottish perspective, will be invaluable in shaping Scotland’s first steps alone in Europe. It is already gearing up for more, not less, of a role post-Brexit.
If the SNP’s conference was really instrumental in renewing the focus on independence within the EU (the old Salmond trope), then it’s time to stop feebly blaming an unacceptable status quo for Scotland’s poor economic and social progress. And, instead of excusing that under-performance via the stock promise that independence will remedy current woes, the SNP must get real and begin serious preparations for the break-up of the UK.
Because faute de mieux, they are in the driving seat without a map for the road ahead.