Alex Massie

Nicola Sturgeon’s Brexit test is designed to fail

Nicola Sturgeon's Brexit test is designed to fail
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Nicola Sturgeon still believes in Scottish independence. I know, who knew? That's the point of the SNP, a party Ms Sturgeon joined as a teenager back when she felt, or so she has said, that Neil Kinnock was busy leading Labour into the wilderness. That, remember, is when she says it all started going wrong for Labour. This is something worth recalling the next time you see or hear some SNP elected representative concern-trolling the Labour party. The weaker, the more unelectable, Labour is the better that suits the SNP.

Anyway, the First Minister gave a speech yesterday in which she spoke about Scotland's five ‘key’ EU interests that ‘must be protected’ if she's to remain a cheerful soul. These were, as the BBC summarises them:

Democratic interests - "the need to make sure Scotland's voice is heard and our wishes respected."

Economic interests - "safeguarding free movement of labour, access to a single market of 500 million people and the funding that our farmers and universities depend on".

Social protection - "ensuring the continued protection of workers' and wider human rights".

Solidarity - "the ability of independent nations to come together for the common good of all our citizens, to tackle crime and terrorism and deal with global challenges like climate change".

Having influence - "making sure that we don't just have to abide by the rules of the single market but also have a say in shaping them.

Well, who could object to any of that? Plenty of folk, actually, but students of Scottish politics can afford themselves a wry little smile when they encounter this hooey. Because this is a classic SNP manoeuvre in which the party bets it can leverage any outcome to its advantage, regardless of what that outcome might be.

A four year old could tell you that even if the United Kingdom retains access to the European single market it is not going to have much of a say in shaping the rules by which that market operates. Brexit means Brexit and its champions are indifferent to the costs of gratifying their spleen-venting monomania. The so-called Norwegian model - once held up by some Brexiteers as a kind of model outcome - is now redefined as a ghastly capitulation and, worse, some kind of mortal insult to the amour propre of teak-hearted but tissue-skinned Brexiteers. Up with this they will not put.

Ms Sturgeon knows this. Her five key tests cannot be met unless the UK were somehow to remain a member of the EU. Even the Norwegian EEA model would fail Sturgeon's test. There is nothing plausible that could pass her tests.

So it is a test that is designed to be failed. And this, viewed from the SNP's perspective, is A Good Thing. Granted, the First Minister would also be pleased if she received everything for which she asks since - and I do not doubt her sincerity in this regard - she thinks these matters best further her conception of the Scottish national interest. But, again, the point is that this is a win-win, can't-lose, situation for the SNP.

Because it is a question of public relations and political positioning, not actual policy. Scotland betrayed, Scotland let down is a high-ranking card to play. So is Scotland bullied and so is Scotland ignored (again). Each takes a trick in the country's endless game of Grievo-Max. That's the point. A battle lost, you see, can be a fiercely powerful thing. People will write terrible poetry about it; people will nurse their resentment like gathering storm.

Never waste a crisis, you see. Ms Sturgeon isn't asking for much, you understand. She's just being reasonable, just standing up for the Scottish interest. If that means pretending the referendum was not a UK-wide plebiscite then so be it. That's just a detail of the kind that need not detain us on the march to national emancipation.

A few years ago, Nicola Sturgeon gave a speech in which, drawing on a distinction first made by the late Neil MacCormack, she considered the existential and utilitarian strains of Scottish nationalist thought. That is, the ultra-sovereigntists who argue Scotland, being a nation, should be independent come hell or high winter and those who merely think independence would, on the basis of a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, offer a sounder future for the country. Both, of course, are welcome parts of the national movement. There's no need to worry about the contradictions, not when they can be embraced instead.

Thus: 'I don’t agree at all that feeling British – with all of the shared social, family and cultural heritage that makes up such an identity – is in any way inconsistent with a pragmatic, utilitarian support for political independence.'

But, hark, also: 'My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice.… I joined the SNP because it was obvious to me then - as it still is today - that you cannot guarantee social justice unless you are in control of the delivery.'

So the utilitarian argument is actually just an existential argument with a softer, more compassionate, face. Which is not a surprise. Ms Sturgeon's faith in independence cannot be falsified. That is, there are no conceivably circumstances in which she could be persuaded independence might be a sub-optimal idea. Utilitarianism is just the clothes existentialism wears on the Sabbath.

And, as it happens, the surest indicator of a Yes vote back in 2014 was considering yourself Scottish not British while, equally, those (few) who reckoned themselves British not Scottish were the citizens most likely to vote for Union.

Small digression: the EU referendum was, as we have already and often had cause to note, just the Scottish referendum refreshed and played to bigger audiences in England. Not least on account of this: those who consider themselves English not British were the keenest Brexiteers while them as think of themselves as British not English were the staunchest Remainers. The EU referendum was a very English crisis (what the Welsh were thinking must be thought a matter for them and their maker. Let us not go there ourselves).

Anyway, Unionist wits ask the SNP why the party privileges access to the EU's single market over Scotland's access to the UK's single market when that latter is four times greater and more important to Scotland than the former. Isn't this, they say, daft? We must preserve tariff free trade for 15 per cent of our exports even if this means tariffs for 60 per cent!

Well, sure, but this is a kind of category error. For all that SNP politicians feel they must pay some kind of tribute to the ideas of Britain and Britishness their essential - even existential - position is to reject such identification. If it were just a question of economics, this Unionist objection might carry some weight. But it is not merely a matter of economics. It is a question of identity - a sense of self - and all that entails. That many nationalists pretend otherwise - some even rejecting the label of nationalist, for crying out loud - does not change the essential and underlying reality. They consider themselves European but not British.

Which is fine. But, again, the SNP is happy to get what it wants and also happy when its wishes - which, remember, are considered the will of the Scottish people made flesh - are denied. Heads we win, tails you lose. As always. Failure isn't just success delayed, it makes that eventual success all the more necessary and persuasive. That's how the game is played, that's how the game works.