Theresa May launches high stakes confrontation with Nicola Sturgeon

The pace of big politics is quickening in the run-up to  pulling the trigger of Art 50.  In advance of addressing the Scottish Conservatives today, Theresa May sayspolitics is not a game and the management of devolved public services in Scotland is too important to be neglected.

But it’s high risk, high stakes  poker that the  prime minister and the first minister are in fact now locking themselves into.   May is calling Nicola Sturgeon’s bluff over the first minister’s threat to put Westminster on the spot and ask for legal authority to call a second indyref  at the SNP annual conference  next month. She  seems to be  daring her to do it  and denying her wriggle room.

Timing of the actual referendum would  of course be tba., as far as Sturgeon is concerned but the choice would mainly be hers, once Westminster had conceded the principle  of holding it. If granted,  the initiative would once again be handed over to the SNP  to stage a long  campaign and chose their movement to strike. May is not about to repeat what many unionists see as Cameron’s error with Alex Salmond in  the Edinburgh Agreement  of 2012, almost two years before the referendum was held.

So a war of words has begun. May’s “tunnel vision” jibe at Sturgeon’s ballooning grandiosity will be remembered. Her tactics are much more confrontational than David Cameron’s who was more circumspect towards Nicola even after victory in 2014, perhaps fearing a stumble into posh-boy sexism. Theresa May has no such inhibitions. She has flatly rejected the SNP’s demand for continuing association with the EU although she denies she is about to settle for a hard Brexit. May makes the time honoured  case of metropolitan governments  under pressure from secessionists everywhere, that what people are more interested is the standards in schools, hospitals etc  that affect their day to day lives. We shall see.

What May has yet to  demonstrate is whether she has much intuitive understanding of Scottish political sentiment and culture or has Margaret  Thatcher’s Home Counties tin ear. If  the latter, she could face disaster.  She will have to do better than rely on the verdict of 2014. Everyone can see the world has changed unexpectedly and materially.

 It was wrong to say she backed a so-called “hard Brexit”, but that she instead wanted “a Brexit that is going to be right for the United Kingdom, and that means being right for all parts of the United Kingdom”.

She also said it was “very clear” that people in Scotland did not want another vote on independence – but did not say whether she would grant permission if the Scottish Parliament called for a second referendum.

Mrs May added: “I can’t help but feel that the SNP has a tunnel vision about independence. Actually I think what people want is for the SNP government to get on with dealing with the issues they want to see addressed on a day-to-day basis.

Later  The speech itself  was an impassioned argument for the Union, with few references to Brexit. May dodged the question of how she would respond to a request from the Scottish government for legal authority  to hold a second indy ref. Clearly she is going to wait on Sturgeon to deal with it at the SNP conference next month. Then she will reply if she has to. Right now, she wants to avoid  the headline the SNP would exploit:  “May vetoes Scots’ right to vote for independence.”   While the UK government have not  specifically rejected the  Scottish  government’s “Place in Europe” paper, arguably  they have done so in terms, by declaring the UK will leave the single market. Their argument  that in the end both governments want the same thing, maximum access to the single market, will not wash with the SNP, although it leaves  them in a quandary about what  to so about it especially when negotiations have yet to begin.  This is the Daily Telegraph’s take. on the May speech

Theresa May has given the clearest indication yet she is preparing for a second independence referendum as she pledged not to allow the Union between Scotland and England to “drift apart” thanks to Brexit.

The Prime Minister used a speech to the Scottish Conservative conference to deliver an impassioned case for the United Kingdom, arguing that unlike the EU it was not a “marriage of convenience or a fair-weather friendship.”

In a half-hour address, she set out a detailed case of the “enduring” economic, security and social benefits to Scotland of remaining in the UK and pledged to resist Nicola Sturgeon’s demands for a swathe of new powers being repatriated from Brussels.

Mrs May warned that devolving all powers currently exercised by the EU in areas such as agriculture and fisheries would undermine the “coherence and integrity” of Britain’s internal market by creating different regimes north and south of the Border.

She warned that the First Minister’s demand would lead to a “looser and weaker Union” and promised to ensure that the “right powers sit at the right levels” to maintain and strengthen the UK.

Her unerring focus on the Union appeared to be a tacit admission that she is expecting Nicola Sturgeon to demand the power to stage a second independence referendum, with the SNP conference being staged in a fortnight.

 The Prime Minster received a standing ovation as she declared in her conclusion: “We are four nations, but at heart we are one people. That solidarity is the essence of our United Kingdom and is the surest safeguard of its future.”

May was returning  Sturgeon’s fire. Your move, Nicola

 latest opinion polls

 The problem  of Scottish independence for the UK constitution as seen by Michael  Keating, director of the Scottish- based Centre on Constitutional Change. In reality, he says it is not the binary  choice as presented.  While it makes much sense, it is finally not an analysis a committed politician would make. Either you separate as a state or you don’t; it’s a deeply emotional issue.
( In  the 2014 Indy ref campaign) both sides knew that the public clustered in the middle ground of ‘devo-max’ or ‘indy-lite’ and sought to get as close to it as possible.
Independence in the modern world is not what it used to be. No state is sovereign in the sense of being able to do whatever it wants. Rather, they are all entwined in webs of interdependency in a ‘post-sovereign’ order. The United Kingdom has gone through successive phases on constitutional change without worrying too much about doctrinal issues or the final point.
This is why Brexit poses such a challenge to our evolving constitution. The demand to take back sovereignty requires us to say where it comes back to, London or Edinburgh. While Brexit politicians in England insist on sovereignty being all in one place, our work shows that most people in Scotland are quite happy with it being divided. Scotland’s relationship with the UK can evolve over time, as powers are gradually devolved and the balance shifts. The EU is another matter; one is either in or out.
In 2014 Scots voted to remain in the UK. In 2016 they voted to remain in the EU. These decisions were entirely consistent with a post-sovereign vision. Now it seems that they cannot be in both. There is a search for a new middle ground, with proposals for Scotland to stay close to the EU but that middle ground is proving difficult to find. The case of Northern Ireland illustrates the point even more vividly. Although few people in London realised it, the EU was one of the remaining things holding the UK together. 
Debating Scotland. Issues of Independence and Union in the 2014 Referendum is edited by Michael Keating and written by the Centre on Constitutional Change team. It has just been published by Oxford University Press. 

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

donate to keep slugger lit