Alex Massie

Nicola Sturgeon’s cherished Brexit grievance rears its head

Nicola Sturgeon's cherished Brexit grievance rears its head
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Politics is a question of priorities. Push always comes to shove and that's when you discover what a party really thinks is important. We've seen this repeatedly this year. The Labour party, for instance, has decided power is for other people. And the Conservative party has decided that leaving the European Union is something worth risking the Union for. If we have to break-up the United Kingdom to save the United Kingdom, then so be it. A price worth paying, you know.

But don't pretend you weren't warned about this. Because you were. Repeatedly. There's a reason, you know, why Ruth Davidson and most of her Holyrood colleagues campaigned for a Remain vote. They could see what was coming down the pipe in the event of a vote to Leave.

Granted, it is no surprise that Nicola Sturgeon still believes in Scottish independence and no surprise, either, that she believes Brexit makes it more imperative than ever. She'd still be arguing for it even if 'Remain' had won the day in June. But when she says Brexit changes everything, it is hard to deny she has a point. It's the Conservatives - in England, not Scotland - who said the EU referendum vote was the most important choice Britain faced in nearly half a century. That choice, especially the particular choice made, has consequences.

So today, at the SNP conference in Glasgow, Sturgeon put the UK Government on notice:

But hear this - if you think for one single second that I'm not serious about doing what it takes to protect Scotland's interests, then think again.

If you can't - or won't - allow us to protect our interests within the UK, then Scotland will have the right to decide, afresh, if it wants to take a different path.

A hard Brexit will change the UK fundamentally.

A UK out of the single market - isolated, inward looking, haemorrhaging jobs, investment and opportunities - will not be the same country that Scotland voted to stay part of in 2014.

If that's the insecure, unstable prospect we face as part of the UK, then no one will have the right to deny Scotland the chance to choose a better future.

And, again, it is hard to argue she doesn't have a point.

You should understand that the issue is not the EU per se. The issue is Scotland being told by England what it will do. Not just England, but Tory England. Not just Tory England but right-wing, Ukip-infused, Tory England. Yes, the referendum was a UK-wide plebiscite and we understand that. But there is a distinction to be drawn between an intellectual acceptance of the result and the emotional resonance of that result. You don't need to be a died-in-woad Nat to feel this; there are plenty of Unionist hackles raised too.

The SNP have no peers when it comes to manufacturing grievances but, on this occasion, there's no need for artifice. Not when the Conservative party hands a bona fide, entirely legitimate, grievance to them. It won't be forgotten any time soon; instead it will be nurtured with all the love and care Nicola Sturgeon can muster. It will be a cherished grievance.

No wonder, then, that Sturgeon today created new tests for Theresa May to fail. After Brexit, Scotland should be able to have its own immigration policy! It should be able to make 'international deals'! Above all, it should be respected and listened to. Sturgeon can say this because she knows it won't happen. But it's about recreating the scenario, and the mindset, that led to devolution in the first place: Scotland ignored, Scotland marginalised, Scotland trampled. You might think this nonsense but plenty of people believe it and that's what matters. And if you look closely enough you may discern that Theresa May is a new Margaret Thatcher and you know what that means, Scotland, don't you? (There's a reason the Iron Lady was name-checked by the First Minister this morning.)

So here we go again, though in truth we never really stopped. Ah, serious sages say, but economic self-interest will trump emotion every time. Well, perhaps. But three words are all you need to be reminded that this is not necessarily so: Trump, Corbyn, Brexit.

Even so, nothing will be easy. A hard Brexit that removes Britain from a tariff-free single market might in time make independence more appealing as a political idea but it necessarily complicates the actual business of making a case for independence that does not leave Scotland materially poorer than would be the case if it remained a part of the UK.

That is, if Brexit leaves Scotland poorer, independence might guarantee even greater impoverishment. That's the inescapable logic of Sturgeon's own speech this morning. As she put it:

We know that Brexit will damage our economy.

Hard Brexit - removal, not just from the EU, but from the single market as well - will be disastrous.

The Treasury estimates that the cost to the UK economy could be £66 billion.

Here in Scotland 80,000 jobs could be lost. Wages would be hit by up to £2000 and growth in the economy would slow.

There is no rational case for taking the UK out of the single market.

But this could easily be reframed by Unionists as:

We know that independence will damage our economy.

Hard independence - removal, not just from the UK, but from the single market as well - will be disastrous.

Independent experts estimate that the cost to the Scottish economy could be more than £20 billion.

Here in Scotland more than 100,000 jobs could be lost. Wages would be hit by up to £2000 and growth in the economy would slow.

There is no rational case for taking Scotland out of the UK's single market.

In other words, there is no need to compound one blunder by adding another. The truth, palatable or not, is that the UK market matters much more to Scotland than the EU market does to the UK. A hard Brexit would mean a hard border on the Tweed should Scotland achieve independence and then seek admission to the EU. Which in turn means no single UK market. If leaving the EU is an act of economic self-harm, leaving the UK would be much, much, worse. We know this because, in effect, Nicola Sturgeon has told us so.

Which leaves us in an unhappy position in which the idea of independence - all things being equal - might be more attractive than ever but, since things are not all equal, the actual cost of independence could be so high it becomes prohibitive. That would leave a Scotland trapped between its desires and its fear of what those desires might cost. An unhappy land, then.

But even in those circumstances I am not sure I would wish to wager too much on economics beating politics. It still might, but it's no sure thing.

In any event, these are still the opening exchanges in a long game. Sturgeon might have announced a crowd-pleasing consultation on a draft referendum bill - sometimes a piece of paper makes a convincing rabbit - but we are still in the wait and see stages. She may need to keep her troops happy but past experience, and the evidence of our present circumstances, suggests the promise of jam tomorrow is always enough to maintain their morale.

Again, the sage and serious people will tell us it's all a ruse and we can calm down because, come on, sage and serious people in London know the Jocks aren't stupid enough to vote for independence. They are, instead, trapped in a Brexit box and that's worth a chortle or two. Maybe that is so, but many of these sage and serious people are also the the idiots who thought, for reasons best explained by their own ignorance and complacency, that only one in three Scots would vote for independence in 2014. They were warned not to be fools then but chose not to listen until it was almost too late but I suppose it's too late - and probably pointless anyway - to warn them not to be fools again.