Show Hide image

The SNP think Theresa May just gave their independence plans a big boost

The PM told Scotland it couldn't veto Brexit. 

Theresa May has given one nod to George Osborne, the chancellor she vanquished upon moving into Downing Street, this week.

Osborne kickstarted support for Scottish independence when he bowled into Edinburgh at the start of 2014 and told Scots they would not be sharing sterling.

The effect, as with Mrs May’s unequivocal statement in her speech on Sunday that Scotland would have neither a veto nor an opt out when it comes to Brexit, was to enthuse nationalists and infuriate those thinking of supporting separation. From that point on support for a Yes vote in that year’s independence referendum started ticking up.

And the SNP are hoping May’s clumsy announcement will have the same effect.

As a senior SNP MP told me: “George Osborne thought he’d kill off the independence debate with his intervention. Instead Scots said ‘Screw you, we’re not going to be pushed around.' It’s going to happen again.

“Let’s face it Theresa May and Philip Hammond have never shown much aptitude for Scottish politics.”

That is no doubt a reference to the anonymous Secretary of State who contradicted Osborne just a few weeks after his Edinburgh address, by claiming that there would be a currency union in the event of independence. Hammond was defence secretary at the time.  

Publicly the SNP are inevitably angry at what some claim is a betrayal. Following her first meeting with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon back in July, the PM: “I won't be triggering Article 50 until I think that we have a UK approach and objectives for negotiations - I think it is important that we establish that before we trigger Article 50." As a senior party source told me: “So that turned out to be bullshit.”

Privately and strategically, though, the party is more relaxed.

If Theresa May thinks she can put pressure on the First Minister with such statements, and force Sturgeon to go for an early referendum she’s gravely mistaken.

Sturgeon will not call a referendum she might lose. One thing she has in common with the Prime Minister is that both of their predecessors got bounced into just a scenario and paid the price. The granite-tough FM can resist pressure from Westminster, and she will. Sources close to the SNP leadership told me they are convinced Brexit will have a bad impact on the economy. While not welcoming the effect it will have on ordinary people, they believe it makes the case for independence a simpler sell. The option is no longer between continuity and competence on the one hand, and chance on the other, but a choice between two equally uncertain futures.

The smart money’s still on a second independence referendum in late 2018 or early 2019, as both the Brexit deal and its impact are revealed.

The problems for Sturgeon arise not from pressure from above, but the foundations upon which she depends.

According to Wings Over Scotland, the controversial independence cheerleader, May’s statement that the UK had voted and will negotiate and Brexit as one nation is “as good as it gets” for supporters of independence.

And there’s the rub. Those desperate for separation as soon as possible make up a goodly chunk of the 100,000 members who have joined the SNP in the last two years. After May's Sunday speech, they are straining at the leash.

What’s red meat for Tory activists is red meat to hardcore independence supporters too.

There has to be question marks over how long they will listen to Sturgeon’s soothing tones urging them to hold off until the right moment.

Next week the SNP elects a new deputy leader. If Sturgeon is handed Tommy Shepherd as her number two, and there are plenty in the party worried that that will happen, he’ll be put there by the votes of impatient members in a clear rejection of the managerialism and gradualism that have served the SNP so well so far.

Sturgeon is just the latest leader to have to juggle the differing demands of party members, and the members of the public who will have the final say at the ballot box.

For Scotland remains divided. Nearly two in five voted to leave the EU (including some 2014 Yes voters and it’s anybody’s bet how they’ll fall if forced to choose between the UK union or the European Union). A similar proportion will vote Yes to independence, come what may. It’s the bit in the middle that’s up for grabs.

Essentially Sturgeon’s relying not on the case for independence becoming more compelling, but on the case for the union deteriorating.

The SNP hope is that May is trying to flush her out now, because she fears the Westminster case for economic competence may go down the pan in the face of Brexit.


Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496