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The game being played by Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon risks unleashing dangerous forces

Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May - Credit: Archant

And it may not end well for either of them

If Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon ever set aside enough time to develop a sense of humour they might have spotted how ridiculously similar is the case they have been making against each from their respective pulpits: the British Unionist lecturing the European Unionist, the pro-sovereignty Scot slugging it out with the pro-sovereignty English vicar’s daughter. Not since the conflict between England’s Queen Elizabeth (May is a fan) and her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, has there been such a petticoat standoff.

It can’t end well for both of them (it didn’t in 1587), perhaps not either of them, or for the EU 27 states which are showing increasing signs of their own centrifugal strains.

In 2017, clamourous rival nationalisms place us all in the grip of passions and events beyond any leader’s masterful control – inside Europe or in a wider world similarly distracted from first order problems like climate change, tech revolutions or cyber warfare.

This scenario has occurred before, most recently when the great surge of globalisation in the late 19th century collapsed into war of unparalleled savagery in 1914. With hindsight the fragmentation of the EU or the UK may look trivial compared with whatever may be cooking in East Asia or the Middle East. There is much more at stake now in sophisticated societies of complex fragility.

Never mind. Nicola and Theresa know their priorities which amount to accusing each other of ‘playing politics’ with serious issues and lacking a mandate (May is ‘not elected by anyone’) from the electorate to exit either Europe or the UK. In reality, both asserted mandates are quite fragile. How many people voted for a Hard Brexit outside the single market or customs union? And how many for an independent, nuclear-free Scotland that has to apply to rejoin both NATO and the EU against a likely Spanish veto? Polls offer scant comfort to the sleepwalkers now in charge.

If Tess and Nic’s bombast sounds like Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s running spat with Mark Rutte, in the Netherlands, or Poland’s Law and Justice party’s row with the EU26, that’s because it is.

Zero sum nationalism has this coarsening effect on public discourse. It’s frightening and it seems to accelerate even on days when White House staffers manage to hide President Trump’s mobile phone. A generation after Western strategists spoke loftily of a chain reaction in South Asia if Vietnam went communist, Asians may wonder if ‘domino effect’ populism is now rippling through the West.

Does Sturgeon have a political case for saying – as she formally did on Monday – that last June’s Brexit vote has so greatly changed Scotland’s place in the Union of 1707 and in the EU that it warrants another ‘once in a generation’ referendum? Of course, she does. Does it mean the SNP Yes camp might win next time – in 2018, 2019 or (if May has her way) after Brexit in 2020? Of course, it does.

‘Heart over head’ is now the international norm, though plenty of Scots will insist that their heads will vote for a small, nimble post-imperial state as prosperous and rich as Norway when the time comes. A Norwegian deal inside the single market but outside the customs union is one model under active consideration in Edinburgh. And why not when English nationalists under the Brexit banner speculate excitedly about their own ‘independence day’ (© N. Farage) in the face of plentiful expert advice that it may all end in tears?

After a conciliatory gesture last July – her first visits as PM were to Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff – May did not get off to a good British start in 2017. Her January speech in Glasgow was not well received in Scotland, raising questions about the quality of the advice she is getting on the Union she professes to treasure. Answer: her joint chief of staff is Fiona Hill, sometimes described as ‘May’s Scottish bruiser-in-chief’, more calmly as ‘a working class Glaswegian Tory’, whom everyone says (I don’t know her) is both clever and very combative.

A former football correspondent on Scotland’s Daily Record (she actually hails from downstream on the Clyde at Greenock) and Sky TV reporter, Hill was the one who chewed up sacked education secretary, Nicky Morgan, on text messages for a snide remark about May’s leather trousers. She did over Michael Gove in the days when he was a Cameron house favourite and was sacked at No 10’s insistence. Now, though, she and bearded Nick Timothy (whose tenure is far less secure now that C4 News is unravelling his role in the Tory election expenses row) make a formidable pair, both as May’s gatekeepers and her key policy advisers. If Timothy, a Birmingham grammar school boy, is responsible for her ‘fairer Britain’ stance, it was Hill who inserted ‘modern slavery’ into the mix. Loyalty is Hill’s watchword.

Perhaps May’s decision to tour the country seeking to build a new consensus (‘don’t call it divorce’) behind Brexit that includes Scots sensibilities is a sign of the fresh thinking about the Union promised in Whitehall – where the building blocks of a pro-UK campaign or a leader to do what Alistair Darling did with diffident dignity in 2014 are not yet visible. Hill and Timothy have been in Scotland this week. Send for the Leave campaign’s dark arts specialists, people like ex-Gove aide, Dominic Cummings, say some, quite forgetting what an enemy of Hill’s he is.

In any case, is a feisty, working class Tory who moved south from Greenock long ago the best person to direct the subtle tones and shifts needed if May’s declared policy of inclusion and mutual respect towards Scotland is to prevail?

It will need to contain the single-minded ambitions of Sturgeon – also working class, the eldest of three daughters of an electrician in Irvine, down the coast from Greenock – arguably the most accomplished politician now practising in Britain, albeit in a pretty thin list.

It was teenage (CND activist and SNP) Sturgeon, a solicitor until her election to Holyrood in 1999, who once said that independence ‘transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends’. That is a pretty fundamentalist position – the kind of nationalist who would ‘live in a cave to be free’ from England, as someone once put it – but it is allied to an acute tactical brain, a pragmatic head despite a throbbing SNP heart.

So Sturgeon and her shrewd Westminster satrap, Angus Robertson, are playing a tactical game too, seeking their version of compromise which would allow Scotland to stay inside the single market and the UK in return for shelving Referendum Two. Do they mean it when their whole raison d’etre is independence? Perhaps. This week’s YouGov polls shows a 57% to 43% majority among Scots for staying in the UK, though only if waverers and Will Not Votes are excluded. Many Scots voters currently seem cool towards another referendum. For others, Brexit trumps independence. Despite the bluster, the risks are evident – as they are with Brexit.

Far less cocky and divisive than her pre-referendum predecessor, Alex Salmond, (no wonder his and Farage’s ego clashed so badly), Sturgeon has played a canny hand as first minister, more widely respected and trusted than Wee ‘Eck who cannot help but try to back seat drive. This week’s timing of her Referendum Two proposal, designed to overshadow May’s Article 50 win at Westminster and give her a win-win position on the referendum’s precise timing, underlines that.

The first minister does this sort of thing well and faces little domestic opposition, either within her own disciplined parliamentary party (no, not you, Alex) or beyond it. The Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, is also a pretty cute operator, but leads a party still toxic in much of Scotland. Labour’s Kezia Dugdale leads an emasculated rump. Some pro-EU commentators in London even credit Sturgeon with being the only UK politician – unlike Labour’s leadership – with the guts and principle to stand up against the Brexit bus, handily flattering, though generous.

Even politicians steeped in the politics of the street fear the street. So threat to Sturgeon’s standing comes from militant activists who fail to see why she – or their fellow countrymen – should hesitate before risking another ballot for freedom. The price of North Sea oil may have plunged since 2014 (actually, it plunged before Referendum One and has since partially recovered) and oil revenues are down from £9 billion (2010-11) to £60 million today, but that is ‘balance sheet’ stuff to such visionaries. A fiscal deficit of 9%, almost triple the UK’s? A ‘passing fad’. Growth lagging behind the wider UK (0.7% to 2%)? Merely ‘a trend’. The currency iScotland would use? A detail.

In part it is such people her stately manoeuvres towards Monday’s statement have been designed to placate. There is nothing wrong with high-minded opportunism, it is the stuff of politics. But this time really may be the SNP’s ‘once in a generation’ last chance. Ask Canada’s Parti Quebecois, which almost won its independence (49.42% of the vote in the 1995 referendum) then slid towards the more humdrum politics – and greater prosperity – of today.

But Sturgeon has already proved cautious. Scottish education, once notably superior to England’s class-hobbled state system, has declined in global league tables on the SNP’s watch. Its health care system about which Nats are inclined to gloat when looking south at struggling NHS England, has not delivered notably better results – UK health care systems tend to converge on most metrics – and remains dogged by poor lifestyle choices and higher mortality rates.

Police Scotland and local authorities have suffered from a centralising ethos whose embodiment is Sturgeon, suspected of not trusting colleagues ministerial judgement. Control over tax rates and bands – from April 1 this year – and other recently devolved powers have been exercised with conspicuous caution. Holyrood has passed little or no legislation since the SNP narrowly lost its overall majority last May. It will need the six Green MSPs votes to carry its promised Referendum Two vote next week.

Much the same sort of criticism for mediocre and sovereignty-distracted performance can be levelled against Queen Theresa, as easily as it can against Nicola, Queen of Scots. A tiny majority, constantly threatened by right wing rebels over the pace and shape of Brexit, creates insecurities. They have been compounded since the budget by ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ Hammond’s efforts to fund spending commitments via tax and NICs rises designed to raise cash but also make the system (slightly) fairer.

The Tea Party lurch towards fiscal irresponsibility on the backbenches, supported by the Brexit Tory press, looks ominous for longer term stability. If UK Labour was in a fit state to do the opposition job it’s paid to do it would have much to condemn. UK public finances are vulnerable to a loss of market confidence that an independent Scotland would also invite. But Jeremy Corbyn, whose policy flip flops are a source of mostly secret sorrow to colleagues, can’t even decide if a second Scottish referendum is ‘absolutely fine’ or not. As with much else, Ed Miliband was little better as leader. Before the 2015 leadership debates on TV he was briefed on the weaknesses of SNP rule at Holyrood, but allowed Sturgeon an easy run. She took it masterfully.

Once both Lords and Commons had finally capitulated to Downing Street on the peers’ amendments to the Brexit Act – the fate of three million EU citizens in Britain and the ‘meaningful vote’ on the final terms – did May delay Britain’s formal triggering of Article 50 because Sturgeon’s challenge wrong-footed her.

Or because she did not want to give Geert Wilders, the Dutch Farage, an election boost? Or embarrass EU colleagues, whose good will is far from infinite, by raining on their 60th birthday parade? Or merely because No 10 and No 11 cannot agree whether May’s letter should go beyond her Lancaster House speech in terms of detail. ‘What detail?’ officials may mutter in Brussels where the speech was regarded as an exercise in wishful thinking.

In her Commons statement on Tuesday May attacked the legitimacy of Sturgeon’s Referendum Two demand, but ducked her insistence that it should be held in late 2018 or early 2019 – before the final (if any) terms of Brexit are likely to be known. She wants Scots voters to know what they would be rejecting and be losing, including their UK ‘subsidies’ as they Daily Mail provocatively calls 40 years of oil tax rebates known as public spending’s Barnett Formula.

In truth both Queens are improvising as they go along. Just as Brexit receives welcome surprises – rising industrial output or another inward investment pledge – to offset the gloomsters, so Scotland’s ‘sovereigntists’ get encouraging economic news. New players, smaller and nimbler than the departing oil majors, are arriving to squeeze more black gold from the North Sea, though not necessarily much more tax revenue in hard times. And Aberdeen Asset Management is poised to merge with Edinburgh-based Standard Life to create a global investment company.

Viceroy’s House, the newly-released film about the partition of India, has been accused of glossing over the bloody chaos of 1947 even as it indulges conspiracy theories as to blame. It won’t happen here – it never does, we tell ourselves – but much closer to home the 1921 partition of Ireland should remind all the sleepwalkers in our own drama of the high stake, risks which Brexit may rekindle. Admirers of Gloriana and her Stuart cousin, Mary, should know this. But do they?

Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian

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