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Maurice Smith on where Scotland is heading following the Brexit vote

Quiraing, Isle of Skye, Scotland. When: 27 May 2016 - Credit: Archant

The Scottish position post-Brexit remains very different from that of Westminster, but no less confused, says Maurice Smith

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has adopted a new twin-track approach to the coming Brexit negotiations, urging Prime Minister Theresa May to stick to the promise of full consultation as she prepares to engage the European Union formally in early 2017.

In reluctant acknowledgment that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, Ms Sturgeon has appointed an experienced former Scottish Government minister, Michael Russell, as her ‘point man’ on Europe. His brief – under the horribly unwieldy title of Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe – is to lobby the UK Cabinet as it prepares its position in advance of ‘Article 50’, the trigger mechanism for the UK’s formal exit from the EU.

Meanwhile the Scottish National Party (SNP) has launched a nationwide consultation on independence. Sturgeon wants each of the party’s 120,000 members to engage with friends, neighbours and workmates as part of a ‘grassroots’ campaign to gauge support and identify potential converts to the cause.

Taken together, these developments signal that, for the Scottish Government, the early phase of the phony war over Brexit may be over. Immediately after the referendum last June, Ms Sturgeon had demanded that Scotland’s clear majority for Remain – by 62 to 38 per cent – should be ‘respected’, whatever happened in the UK’s Brexit negotiations. Her government wants Scottish business to retain access to the single market on existing terms, including free movement of labour.

It has been more difficult to flesh out what actually can be done to ‘respect’ the Scottish position, within the reality of an overall UK majority for Leave.

Sturgeon’s immediate response to the June 23 vote included a high-profile flurry of meetings with EU representatives, the German government as well as the Northern Ireland Assembly and Government of Gibraltar – both areas which also saw more vote for Remain than Leave.

Her clear message is intended to emphasise a readiness to meet the Brexit scenario head-on, showing a preparedness to engage on Europe while Westminster reacted in disarray amidst the departure of David Cameron and the seemingly messy battle to replace him.

The First Minister wanted the EU to know immediately that a clear majority of Scots did not back Brexit and will press for exceptions in any agreement that does not meet her administration’s aspirations.

Her case is that the referendum result represents a dramatic ‘material change’ to Scotland’s political circumstances, which may in turn support public demand for a second Scottish independence poll. The SNP’s problem is that right now that argument is not borne out in opinion polls.

Edinburgh may have been May’s first port of call after her ascendancy to the premiership in July, but already the apparent consensus reached then with Sturgeon is showing signs of strain. The First Minister says now that May must honour her apparent promise made that day that the Scottish Government be fully consulted in preparation for the EU negotiations. This suggests that already Edinburgh is losing faith in the Downing Street position.

Sturgeon and other senior SNP figures have upped the pressure in recent weeks, making significant play out of the fact that the Better Together campaign had told Scottish voters in 2014 that remaining in the UK was the only way Scots could ensure continued EU membership.

May flatly rejects calls for a second independence referendum, arguing that the Brexit result applied across the whole of the UK, whatever the voting figures in Scotland or other parts of the country that supported the Remain side. From the Westminster perspective, Scotland voted no to independence by 55-45 per cent in 2014, and that result was emphatic enough to hold, regardless of Europe.

The result of all this is that the Scottish position remains very different from that of Westminster, but no less confused. While the Tories in Westminster have been exposed over the disarray and lack of planning related to Brexit, the SNP have been accused by its opponents of facing both ways on the issue. Ms Sturgeon wants independence, yet insists that she also wants to get the best deal for Scotland within the UK, in or out of the EU.

Immediately following the June poll, the SNP seemed to be suggesting that if the UK pressed ahead, Scotland should somehow be exempted from the move. ‘The Scottish vote to remain in the EU must be respected,’ repeats Ms Sturgeon. There has been inconclusive speculation about how this might happen, as if some kind of halfway house could be created.

Scots point to the situation in Northern Ireland. The creation of a new EU border between there and the Republic would be deeply unpopular, and arguably might breach the Irish peace settlement. Westminster has hinted in turn that it will seek some kind of ‘soft border’ there, defying the official position that borders are necessary in order to restrict immigration and that the UK negotiators will not agree to the EU’s free labour in market.

So what is the difference, argue the SNP? If exceptions can be made along the Irish border, why can’t Scotland retain some of the benefits of EU membership? What about other anomalies, such as the tax status of the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, for example? Certainly, the Tory position is contradictory – one of the arguments against Scottish independence was that it would create an artificial ‘hard’ border with England. Yet apparently Brexit may not mean that in Ireland.

The Conservatives are certainly trying to have things both ways when it suits. But so are the SNP. On the one hand they argue Scotland should remain in Europe, whilst also arguing also that Scotland should be independent of the UK, and especially so if Brexit actually happens.

Such is the state of politics in Britain today. The Brexit vote has forced parties into seemingly contradictory positions, as Tory Remainers are now Brexiters, and Labour … well let’s just to say things are a little fluid.

The SNP’s dilemma is manifold. The stakes are high for Nicola Sturgeon. Her party won its third term in government last May and has embarked on a new parliamentary session with greater powers, including new ones in the areas of welfare and taxation, than at any time since devolution was introduced in 1999.

This has been seized upon by opposition parties in Scotland, not least the Conservatives. Their leader, Ruth Davidson, argues that Scots have had enough of elections and referenda, and that the Scottish Government should get on with running the country. Davidson, the most likely figure to lead a ‘No’ campaign if there is a second Scottish referendum, accuses the SNP of failing in its duties because of an obsession with the constitutional issue.

Sturgeon, for her part, argues that the UK would not be facing Brexit if it were not for Tory Party incompetence and duplicity, adding that Davidson’s criticisms resemble those of ‘an arsonist complaining about the fire brigade’.

The SNP dominates Scottish politics to a significant degree now, and it is quite possible that a determined Yes campaign could force a vote for independence. But Ms Sturgeon knows she cannot risk demanding another referendum without being sure of winning; a second defeat would kill the independence case.

A ‘hard’ Brexit scenario, where the UK ended up with a poor deal from the EU and the economy demonstrably damaged, would play into the SNP argument that Westminster cannot deliver a bright future for the Scottish economy. But the UK has also entered phase two of the phony war, as Brexit Minister David Davis and his colleagues try to assemble a coherent negotiating position before May’s preferred trigger date of early 2017.

The Labour position on Scotland remains in deep disarray. Leader Kezia Dugdale had to do effectively withdraw a remark that she might in future have to support independence, a comment that drew the ire of activists. But the truth is that the party is split on independence, with some preferring either the status quo or some sort of federal solution across Britain.

That ongoing disarray helped Labour drop into third place at the Scottish elections in May, and its opinion poll standing has fallen below 20 per cent recently, an astonishing situation for a party that dominated politics north of the border for so long. The Corbyn leadership has virtually excluded itself from the Scottish debate.

So the Brexit stage belongs mainly to just two parties – the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives at UK level. While May and Sturgeon assume the mantle of being in charge of day to day government, the truth is the fate of both parties and leaders will depend on the outcome of Brexit.

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