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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.

 

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear