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18 August 2016

When it comes to Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon has overplayed her hand

My week, from Twitter hounding, the politics of independence, and why Europe matters for the Edinburgh Festival.

By David Torrance

August is festival time in Edinburgh, but naturally politics still intrudes, although usually politely. Last month, the director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Fergus Linehan, admitted that Brexit had given cultural organisers “a fright”. Then Nick Barley, his counterpart at the book festival, called on the political classes to map out a future for Scotland beyond “managerial government”. A noble aspiration, certainly, but the question on everybody’s lips remains the possibility of a second independence referendum.

Speaking at the University of Edinburgh Business School, the former Liberal leader David Steel predicted that it wouldn’t take place any time soon, not least because Nicola Sturgeon was being typically “cautious”. “She says it’s ‘highly likely’,” he said after reflecting on his half-century in politics. “Highly likely when? And highly likely how?” Steel was articulating how those two words have become a hostage to fortune for the First Minister. He was also asked to comment on the support of the shadow Scottish secretary, David Anderson, for a coalition between Labour and the SNP following the next general election. Steel was unconvinced, recalling attempts at co-operation between Scottish Liberals and nationalists in the 1960s, tentative negotiations that came to nothing. Anyway, such talk infuriates the Scottish Labour leadership, which realises, unlike its southern colleagues, that the SNP would only be interested in supporting Labour, to quote Lenin, “in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man”.


Riding two horses

Scottish Labour has slipped off the political radar remarkably quickly, but then, at the recent election, it ceased to be the principal opposition party at Holyrood. The prospect of a second independence referendum leaves Labour in a particularly difficult place. Still suffering guilt by association with the Conservatives last time round and conscious that many of its members support independence, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, has been trying to ride two horses since the EU referendum. In that context, the current UK leadership campaign is an unwelcome distraction and, right on cue, the Jeremy Corbyn/Owen Smith roadshow will be in Glasgow on 25 August.

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Safe from the storm

Every August in Edinburgh, the book festival provides useful balance, its (generally) cerebral discussions complementing the high culture of the international festival and the banter of the stand-up comedians at the Fringe. It’s also the antithesis of Twitter (from which I recently removed myself after becoming caught up in a so-called storm): more nuanced, friendlier and much more time and space for amicable disagreement.


Existential questions

At another session, the former Edinburgh Pentlands MP Malcolm Rifkind, who has recently published a memoir, had lots of shrewd things to say about his life in politics, as well as more recent developments, not least what he termed the two “existential” questions at the centre of his career: Scotland’s place in the UK and the UK’s place in Europe. Like Steel, Rifkind, a former foreign secretary under John Major, believed that another referendum was a long way off and that an increasingly “quasi-federal” UK was safe in the short to medium term.

The journalist Ruth Wishart (who was chairing the event) turned up wearing a “Bloody difficult woman” T-shirt, a reference to Rifkind’s caught-on-microphone conversation with his former cabinet colleague Ken Clarke about the new Prime Minister. As a supporter of Scottish independence, Wishart inevitably clashed with her interviewee. When Rifkind made the important point that all the problems associated with independence during the 2014 campaign – currency, borders and public spending deficit – remained, in spite of Brexit, Wishart called it a very “lawyerly” argument. Rifkind shot back: “In other words, you don’t have a response.”


Secret plan

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, it became widely accepted, particularly among the London-based commentariat, that Sturgeon had played a blinder; that she was the only politician with a concrete “plan”. While she was certainly assured, if the First Minister does have a plan, then it’s not much clearer what it is almost two months after the outcome of the referendum. Indeed, a growing number of people believe that she overplayed her hand.

Scottish government aides were quick to dismiss recent reports that SNP ministers were planning a referendum next summer, and, in recent days, some well-connected commentators have been briefed to the effect that, far from another ballot being “highly likely” (to use Sturgeon’s words), they’re now thinking longer term, perhaps as far away as 2020-21.


Just like old times

On Tuesday night, at the book festival, I chaired a debate on “Scotland now”, which ruminated on what might happen over the next few years. Alex Bell, a former head of policy at the Scottish government, said that he believed Scotland’s “constitutional moment” had passed, while Aileen McHarg, who is a constitutional lawyer, countered that it was ongoing. Bell went further, predicting that the party he had supported for most of his life (the SNP) would decline in popularity over the next four years. It was just like old times.

The journalist Alex Massie riled some Yes supporters in the audience by describing the “Women for Independence” campaign group as a “front” for the SNP, while Bell dismissed the 2013 Scottish government white paper as “drivel” – and he even urged its authors to “apologise”, so that Scotland could move on. Alluding to Brexit, Bell declared: “The English were better at independence than the Scottish.” Edinburgh might break London’s cultural dominance of the UK for a few weeks every August, but politics remains another matter. 

This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge