Like Mother Teresa on a message grid, Nicola Sturgeon loves nothing more than going among the poor and downtrodden with a hug, some hope, and an embargoed press release. EU nationals are the latest beneficiaries of the First Minister's ministrations. The SNP leader has penned an open letter to EU citizens resident north of the border as part of her ‘Stay in Scotland’ scheme to help them secure settled status. The language is as meticulously neutral as it always is in taxpayer-funded Scottish Government initiatives:
‘As EU citizens in the UK you have had to endure years of careless indecision on what the future holds for your lives, your careers and your families... The hardest part of dealing with Brexit has been meeting EU citizens across Scotland, who want to stay here but who do not know what steps they need to take and whether their rights will be secured.'
Helping EU migrants make the UK their home is laudable. ‘Scotland is your home, you are welcome here, and you are valued’ is how the UK Government ought to be addressing them. But before the mawkish tributes to Sturgeon and her ‘progressive’ approach begin to ooze from the Scottish commentariat, it’s worth recalling an earlier episode involving EU migrants that the SNP would like to forget.
Before the 2014 referendum, the Scottish Government told voters that ‘Scotland is part of the European Union and will remain part of it as an independent country’. The White Paper, its fabulist framework for secession, assured Scots that the EU treaties could be revised ‘before Scotland becomes independent, to enable it to become a member state at the point of independence’. José Manuel Barroso, then president of the European Commission, contradicted these assertions, telling the House of Lords economic affairs committee: ‘[A] new independent state would, by the fact of its independence, would become a third country with respect to the EU and the treaties would no longer apply on its territory’. Over the course of the campaign, Barroso’s statement was echoed by European Council president Herman van Rompuy, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy and Commission vice president Viviane Reding.
Backed into a corner, the SNP went with an instinct never far from the surface: it issued a threat. Two months before polling day and in the middle of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games, Nicola Sturgeon warned:
‘We have set down a robust and common sense position.There are 160,000 EU nationals from other states living in Scotland, including some in the Commonwealth Games city of Glasgow. If Scotland was outside Europe, they would lose the right to stay here.’
Reminded of this ugly tactic, Scottish nationalists will insist it’s completely different from the Tories failing to confirm the settled status of EU migrants post-Brexit but, after a few circuits of logic hurdles, it becomes clear that the germane difference is that Sturgeon was pursuing A Good Policy and Theresa May A Bad Policy. In truth, Sturgeon’s comments were not isolated. Around the same time, Robin McAlpine, director of influential pro-independence think tank Common Weal, said Scotland would only ‘be out the EU for as long as we can afford to put every single EU citizen in this country on an EasyJet and send them back to their countries’.
For Sturgeon now to pose as defender of EU nationals’ rights is hypocritical cant. That she will go almost unchallenged by her third-sector groupies and that wodge of the Scottish press that cannot see political villainy outside Westminster should not surprise anyone. Scotland is a conservative country that rallies to its own establishment, whomever that happens to be at any given time. We don’t need Brussels as a bogeyman, for we have London. We don’t need Brexit or Jacob Rees-Mogg or blue passports for we have independence and Joanna Cherry and boycotts of Union Jack stickers on supermarket goods. But these aren’t the same things. Our nationalism is different, you see.
Of course, Sturgeon’s hypocrisy doesn’t excuse the incompetence, pettiness, and disregard for EU nationals the May government has displayed throughout the Brexit process. In 2014, 57 per cent of voters born outside the UK backed remaining in the Union while 43 per cent wanted to leave. It’s difficult to imagine that spread being replicated in a re-run referendum. Events of the past five years, chiefly Brexit and the acrid rhetoric and callous policies around it, have recast the UK from benign, if eccentric, international power to the insular, Empire-mourning Farageland of Scottish nationalist imagination. Among the sins of the Brexiteers, few are as grievous as giving Neal Ascherson a point.
I continue to understand the UK as a good country, although one that has, like Scotland in the age of nationalism, allowed the worst of its nature off the tether. We won’t get back to where we were — it doesn’t work like that — but eventually we’ll find our footing. If we continue to pretend our superiority complex is benign, or non-existent, it will remain untethered and Scotland will go on stumbling in the shadow of Brexit until it drops into a similar trap of its own devising.