Alex Massie

Nicola Sturgeon’s Baldrick moment

Nicola Sturgeon's Baldrick moment
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Yesterday, the Scottish government published its ‘plan’ for life after Brexit. It was, at 60 or so pages, more detailed than anything we have yet seen from Theresa May’s ministry. But then it would be, given that Nicola Sturgeon will not be leading the UK’s negotiations as and when they begin. Still, plenty of nationalists crowed that, whatever else might be said of the Scottish government’s document, at least Sturgeon has a plan. But so did Baldrick. 

That a plan exists does not make it a good plan. Or even an achievable one. And since we are still in the early stages of the Brexit waiting game the Scottish government’s proposals have the advantage of novelty but freshness is not enough either. There will be other plans and, by God, we must hope some of them are better than the one published by Ms Sturgeon. 

Because it wasn’t so much a plan as an exercise in wishful thinking. It might, it is true, be in Scotland’s economic interest to remain a member of the European single market even if the UK government eventually proposes to trade with the EU on WTO terms. But, as I write in the Times today, there are few, if any, grounds for thinking it’s in the interests of either London or Brussels to agree to the SNP’s demands. Just as the Brexiteer ultras blithely assume the UK can get everything it wants, so the SNP typically forgets other parties have interests too. Interests they will defend. 

This is doubtless disagreeable but there it is. Reality sucks just as much as it bites. In any case, as my colleague Kenny Farquharson observed, the Scottish government’s proposals take account of only two Brexit outcomes: a UK wholly outside the single market or a UK entirely within it. Neither is necessarily probable. Indeed, government ministers - including Brexiteer ministers - have been quietly preparing the ground for a softer Brexit than the ultras would like. If this pattern continues - and sensible people should hope it does - we may expect to hear plenty of talk about a ‘Brexit betrayal’. That will be one way of measuring Brexit’s success (or, if you prefer, determining that it’s not as calamitous as you might once have expected). 

Paradoxically, albeit for different reasons, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson agree on more than either can let on in public. The Scottish Conservative leader would also like as soft a Brexit as possible, one that retains as much of the existing single market architecture as can be achieved. Both accept this is in the interest of the UK as a whole and Scotland more particularly. Davidson, however, sees little merit in picking too many fights too publicly. 

They have, for sure, come to this common conclusion for radically different reasons. Sturgeon fears that a hard Brexit complicates the practical case for Scottish independence; Davidson worries that a hard Brexit makes the political case for Scottish independence more attractive. They are both right. 

Sturgeon trolls the UK by suggesting that the government’s response to her proposals will 'tell us everything about whether the UK is a partnership of equals'. In other words: give us everything we want or else. But we know Sturgeon doesn’t think the UK a ‘partnership of equals’. Her political life is predicated on the notion that it is not, never has been, and never can be any more than the European Union, also notionally a ‘partnership of equals’, is any such thing. Unless, that is, you believe Germany and Malta are equal partners. 

The SNP offer, naturally, a mischaracterisation of the UK. It is an unusual creature, to be sure. Like the Trinity it is multifarious; less a ‘partnership of equals’ than a shape-shifting animal simultaneously divisible and indivisible. There are times when it acts as the UK - as when voting to leave the European Union - and other times when its individual components have liberty to fashion their own arrangements, peculiar to their own situations. Brexit is not one of those times. 

That informs the underlying dynamic that is the basis for Scottish politics: success is measured by distinctiveness, not necessarily by the record of any achievement. ‘Different from’ is generally taken to mean ‘better than’ and we all know with whom the comparison is made. Politics is a game of psychology too and the SNP’s approach is to govern as though you were in the early days of a new and sovereign nation. Behave as though Scotland were independent in all but name and soon enough the name will be achieved. 

In the end, some things are unfalsifiable. Suppose, just for a moment, Nicola Sturgeon’s plan was accepted by the UK and the EU. Then what? Notionally, if this were the ‘good faith’ proposition she says it is independence would be no kind of a priority. Except we know that would not be the case. An independence in all but name would be used as the platform from which to launch a campaign to complete the nation’s fabled ‘journey’. 

And ask this: is it possible to imagine the SNP supporting a proposal that might, in their estimation, make independence less likely? I submit that it is not possible to imagine any such scenario. They begin from the proposition that independence is the answer and work back to the question. That’s their prerogative and it does not make independence an ignoble or even retrograde step but it does allow the rest of us - the majority of Scots, incidentally - to greet their proposals with an appropriate measure of scepticism. 

The constant threat that ‘if we don’t get everything we want, we’re off’ is an odd way to behave, especially if you hold - or pretend to hold - to the view that the UK is a partnership. The ‘compromise’ offered by the Scottish government is no such thing because, in the end, there is one very large thing upon which the SNP cannot compromise. The end is what matters, everything else is just tactics.