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Could sidelined Scotland spring one last surprise?

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Scotland looked certain to play a pivotal role in how Brexit would play out, but has since been sidelined. Could the country spring one last surprise? MAURICE SMITH​ reports

Five days after the 2016 referendum, Nicola Sturgeon travelled to Brussels to discuss the implications of the vote with EU officials. As the parties at Westminster struggled to work out who should lead them – let alone how they should respond to the bombshell result – the Scottish first minister had seized the initiative.

She looked destined to play a pivotal role in how Brexit would play out and as she made the early running it seemed there was everything to play for: not just EU, or single market, membership but independence too.

At the Scottish National Party conference in Glasgow that autumn, Sturgeon had activists in rapture as she announced plans for a new independence referendum, daring other parties to support it in the face of a hard Brexit. Here was a leader with a plan, someone who knew exactly how to respond to that shocking EU vote, while others floundered. Or so it seemed.

The move was intended as a warning shot as the new prime minister wrestled with Article 50 and the consequences of the 2016 referendum. Sturgeon’s response strengthened positive perceptions of her leadership. Amid the Tory chaos she used Scotland’s clear support for continued EU membership – 62% in favour – to press her case for Scotland to win special concessions from both Westminster and Brussels.

Back then, all seemed clear. Many party activists, licking their wounds after the 2014 independence defeat, lapped it up as their leader lobbed this confident verbal warning directly towards Theresa May: ‘Hear this: if you think for one single second that I’m not serious about doing what it takes to protect Scotland’s interests, then think again!’

Yet things are no longer looking so simple. That new referendum bill was duly published and passed at Holyrood, but the second poll has not come. This is despite the fact that the two main conditions that Sturgeon demanded – Scottish access to the EU single market and a strengthening of Scottish Parliamentary powers in the event of Brexit – have not been achieved.

And not only has there been no move towards independence, the last two years has also put paid to the idea that Scotland would play a – perhaps the – pivotal role in the Brexit process. As British politics has become infatuated with the issue – and as the fate of the Irish border has come to dominate negotiations – so the Scottish body politic has become a weary bystander, lacking influence and largely ignored.

It is not that the dynamism and interest – nor the fervour for Scottish nationalism – no longer exists in Scotland, more that it has been sidelined, as the political stage has been dominated by the endless wrangling at Westminster.

Despite her demands for recognition of a distinctive Scottish angle, Sturgeon’s ‘red lines’ have been ignored and frustrated by Downing Street. Despite more than a year of nervy negotiations, Scottish demands for devolved responsibilities coming back from Brussels post-Brexit to transfer immediately to Edinburgh were mainly blocked amid claims of a ‘power grab’ by Whitehall. Scotland wants more powers over migration – reasoning that immigrants have been good for the economy and are a much needed antidote to the problems of an ageing population – but Westminster will have none of that.

So two years on, the SNP returns to the same conference venue on the banks of the River Clyde in October. Nicola Sturgeon says she will use the occasion to announce a ‘reset’. The consensus has been that referendum enthusiasts may have to cool their jets. The referendum that was billed expectantly for 2017 has been parked until after Brexit. In truth it is unlikely to happen this side of 2021. The first minister’s ‘reset’, no doubt to be accompanied by warnings to Downing Street and declarations that the SNP will remain on a war footing for coming elections or referenda, will more likely mean an indefinite delay. To date, the SNP leadership won’t even support the People’s Vote campaign for a second EU referendum.

There are many reasons for all this, not least the fact that the massive Westminster success of 2015 – when the SNP took a staggering 56 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies – was undone when 21 of those seats were lost two years later.

The simplistic equation that ‘English Brexit vote = a Scottish majority for independence’ does not easily compute. However worried middle class voters might be about Brexit, many of them perceive Scottish independence as another risk that would compound the economic uncertainties.

Edinburgh, for example, voted ‘No’ to independence in 2014, and delivered one of the highest Remain votes – 74% – in 2016. There has been no evidence – anecdotally or by opinion poll – that ‘No’ voters there have changed their minds on either issue.

Undaunted, pro-independence marches in Scottish cities have attracted thousands. Organisers’ main aim has been to keep activists focused on the prize of a second referendum. They are getting little real encouragement from the SNP leadership.

Why might this be? Sturgeon has a reputation for caution. Her personal politics may be progressive but her record as first minister has been one of pragmatism. Her administration has struggled with its attempted reformation of Scottish education, and also with the persistent issues every government faces in running the health service.

Before summer, the SNP’s much-vaunted ‘Growth Commission’, headed by former SNP MSP turned lobbyist Andrew Wilson, finally delivered its report on how an independent Scotland might tackle the economy. Wilson, an economist originally, earned praise for his pragmatism. The report recommended that Scotland should retain sterling for up to 10 years, a period which – even in the best of economic circumstances – would include significant belt tightening and a strict fiscal regime.

The report was seen in some quarters as realistic in comparison to the optimistic forecasts published by the SNP government during the 2014 campaign, buoyed by a much higher oil price.

But if the purpose of Wilson’s report is to convince wavering ‘No’ voters, does it say enough? Critics on the left decry its aversion to radical tax and spend policies. But it may offer comfort also to the No campaign, hinting more at a bread-and-water post independence existence than one of milk and honey.

The key elements of Scottish politics have the appearance of being little changed. The SNP is still the dominant party in the opinion polls, even though its wings were clipped in 2016 when it lost its overall majority at Holyrood. By the time of the next Holyrood election, the SNP will have been in power for 14 years. No other party seems capable of ousting them as the biggest party.

Support for independence varies in the polls around the 45% level achieved in 2014. Support for a second referendum is weaker, and it may be that many voters are waiting to see how Brexit turns out.

The respected poll analyst Professor Richard Curtice underlines another factor, which is that a significant proposition of SNP / Yes supporters are also eurosceptics. Some of them deserted the SNP for the Conservatives in 2017, explaining the latter’s unexpected success – winning 13 seats – mainly from the nationalists.

Sturgeon’s position as party leader and first minister remains unassailable meantime. There is fanciful talk of her being beaten by Ruth Davidson, who attracts favourable publicity south of the border as a possible future Tory Party leader, an ambition she has denied.

However, for Davidson to become first minister would require a complete collapse of SNP support, and for other parties – especially Labour – to back her in coalition.

Politics everywhere has taken a few weird turns in recent years. But even in such strange times, the prospect of a Tory government in Edinburgh, propped up by Labour votes, still seems too unlikely to contemplate. Or does it?

Maurice Smith is a commentator and TV documentary maker based in Scotland

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