How Brexit exposes Sturgeon as a lame duck leader

How Brexit exposes Sturgeon as a lame duck leader

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 4, February, 2020

DURING THE 43 MONTHS between Britain voting to leave the EU and the deed being accomplished on 31 January 2020, Nicola Sturgeon’s performance on Brexit can be filed under the category ‘passive aggressive.’ When it came to the crunch her level of outrage about Britain embracing national self-determination once more was superficial and shaped around emotive displays involving flags and stunts at Holyrood that were erroneously called debates.

She insisted an altered relationship with the EU justified a fresh independence referendum even though Scotland is one of the parts of Britain least affected in economic and other terms by withdrawal. Three years of non-stop invective from her, uncritically endorsed by much of the local media, helped traumatise particularly middle-class voters hitherto immune from the SNP’s charms.

But given the chance she showed no sense of urgency about halting and reversing Brexit. The May deal, involving retention of the customs union and the UK following EU rules in many other respects, was tailor-made for the SNP. It would have polarised UK politics for years to come and allowed the separatists a real chance of taking Scotland out of a weakened Union and joining the EU (without applying to join from scratch).

Yet the SNP rejected a deal that could have opened the high road to ‘freedom’. Then Sturgeon, along with the Liberal Democrats, gave what newly-installed Prime Minister Boris Johnson desperately sought, an early election to ‘Get Brexit Done.’ With a skewed feeling for the electoral dynamics in the rest of Britain, Sturgeon either thought that Johnson was as unpopular down south as he was in large parts of Scotland, or she didn’t much care about how things went there. A general election could enable her to obtain a strengthened mandate for the SNP just months before the start of a sensational trial in which her mentor Alex Salmond faced extremely serious charges. She must have known the likelihood of this trial eclipsing everything else that happens to the party in 2020 was extremely high.

So halting Johnson, securing a hung parliament, and opening the way for Brexit to be diluted to infinity, were revealed not to be priorities despite all the histrionics about leaving the EU.

At critical moments, when a decisive intervention from her could have strengthened the Remain cause, she showed that Brexit was of secondary importance. Her own personal career always took precedence.

There have always been critics such as Jim Sillars and Alex Neil, and more recently Kenny MacAskill who have argued that enforcing her personal control over the party and the Scottish statelet is all that really matters to her. Now such critics have been augmented by a growing realisation that there has been no coherent strategy behind her manipulation of Brexit that is designed to revive the prospect of an early referendum on Scottish independence.

Previously, the message was delivered from on high to party members that the leadership was preparing to hold such a referendum this year and that it should be in a campaigning mood. The 47 SNP MPs were instructed to spend far more time in their constituencies campaigning. Westminster may technically have the power to hold such a referendum but the Edinburgh parliament was ‘the sovereign’ one; Westminster must cede its primacy to Holyrood on the matter. Courts would be utilised, a Citizens Assembly would be set up, civil disobedience would not be ruled out if London proved obdurate. The constitutional struggle had been very much front and centre in the SNP’s election campaign.

For weeks after December 12 Sturgeon exuded confidence that in the febrile atmosphere of British politics, she would be able to bend the London establishment to her will.

But she underestimated the extent to which Johnson would establish his authority and make the weather on Brexit. Instead of working on her strategy and involving her 110 parliamentarians, she basked in the media spotlight. She boasted Brexit could be reversed. But backing for her call that Scotland be allowed ‘a passport to Europe’ was conspicuously lacking anywhere in continental Europe.

Two hours before Brexit, Sturgeon tweeted about a ‘Scotland Europe’ projection beamed on the European Commission, claiming that ‘they appear to have left a light on for us.’ The projection was beamed from outside of the building and was not any endorsement of Scottish Nationalism from within (the Commission denying any role). A private contractor is now being reported to have been commissioned by the Scottish Government to make the projection. Strangely, a physical copy of the projection had also appeared etched out of the sand on Portobello beach. Coincidence?

Yet under her aegis the party has raised false expectations about a pathway for Scotland into the heart of Europe which increasingly seems bound up with preserving the political sway of one individual. It is surprising that civic and media figures ranging from the historian Sir Tom Devine (who advocated civil disobedience if Boris took Scotland out of the EU) to the political commentator Andy MacIver who warned that the Union would end if pro-EU sentiment wasn’t appeased, didn’t realise that there could be a strong possibility they were being used.

Yet in the last days of Britain’s membership of the EU, the wheels started to come off Sturgeon’s anti-Brexit juggernaut. On 30 January she admitted that Johnson’s refusal to allow a referendum would not be aggressively challenged. Sops were thrown towards the Yes faithful: the courts would be utilised (but with the likelihood of success faint), there would be a Constitutional Convention (the Citizens Assembly having been ditched), perhaps ‘a Scottish Claim of Right’ thrown in. After Holyrood elections due in 2021, a new plan of campaign would be devised.

But why not bring forward the elections to this spring in order to show the degree of resistance to Brexit and the determination to give the people of Scotland a referendum to decide their future? Sturgeon will not be drawn about her future tactics except she has made it clear she is not throwing down the gauntlet.

Little noticed on an eventful 31 January was the decision of the head of the NHS in the Lothian region, Brian Houston to resign. He objected to being made a scapegoat for failings in the health service which he believed went to the very top. The SNP has been adept at personalising issues and promoting a blame culture, with dupes and opponents but rarely ever any Nationalists being in the frame.

Sturgeon’s regional government will receive new responsibilities and powers repatriated from Brussels and it is hard to see how it is capable of using them to the benefit of the local population. Too many years have been invested in a phoney anti-Brexit crusade by a leader primarily concerned about cementing her own authority in her party and building up a profile beyond Scotland. Unfortunately for her such acquisitiveness has not been matched by any strategic wisdom. She has wound up her supporters into thinking that crisis in Britain means a new opportunity for Scotland to secede. But she has nothing up her sleeve and as Westminster regains the initiative in territorial politics, her reputation and political future are in growing jeopardy.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divides his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His next book, Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die will be published in London by Hurst Publications in the summer.

His twitter account is @cultfree54

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