On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that MPs must have a say in triggering Article 50. But in the same moment, it dismissed the idea that the devolved governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales could have a say too.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon quickly asked whether it was time for Scotland take its future into its own hands. “It is becoming ever clearer that this is a choice that Scotland must make,” she declared.
But while the SNP faithful will be digging out their Yes posters, Sturgeon has already ruled out a referendum for 2017. Party realists do not want to call one unless they can be confident of a comfortable win. They understand that Scotland’s swing voters are unlikely to look kindly on another divisive poll unless it is clear that the UK is irrevocably set on Hard Brexit. They believe Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to leave the single market has still not fully sunk in.
At the same time, as I’ve written before, timing is everything. A Scottish government promising continuity would prefer that independence happened no later, and perhaps earlier, than Brexit. In other words, in 2018, four years after the “once-in-a-lifetime referendum”, Scottish voters should brace for another.
Support for independence currently hovers around 44 per cent. The SNP hopes a campaign would galvanise the Yes movement again. But the oil price has crashed, and Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK is roughly four times that with the EU. If a referendum is to be won, there must be a realistic expectation Scotland can remain in the EU.
For this reason, the SNP is watching three countries closely.
The first is Spain, which has its own independence problem in Catalonia, and could try to block an independent Scotland remaining in the EU. The SNP argument is that Spain’s bark is worse than its bite, that it could be won over with fishing access, and anyway Catalonia is totally different. This kind of reasoning is undermined by the fact a) SNP activists like to wave Catalonian flags and b) Spain always seems to come up in conversation, like a nervous tic.
So far, the signs are not encouraging. The Spanish government reacted to the Scottish government’s December Brexit plan by saying: “If the UK leaves the single market, the whole UK will leave the single market.” The main question for the SNP may thus be whether Spain wields the influence it claims it does.
The second is Ireland. The UK government is desperate to find a way to keep the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland open, and no one is more supportive than the SNP. If it works in Ireland, it can work in Gretna Green. (Irish political leaders gave Sturgeon a warm welcome when she visited in November).
Finally, there is Germany. SNP insiders believe it is crucial to Scotland’s chances of staying in the EU (David Cameron, who wooed the Chancellor Angela Merkel during his EU negotiations, might disagree). They claim that Europe’s giant is sympathetic to their predicament. Indeed, Manfred Weber, a Bavarian ally of Merkel, said after the Brexit vote: “Those who want to stay are welcome in the European Union.” Merkel’s attack dog Gunther Krichbaum made similar noises.
Should Merkel herself decide to speak, the SNP would be at action stations. So far, though, the Chancellor has remained schtum.
The SNP may understand the importance of timing. But if there is a master of the waiting game, it is Merkel. And when it comes to making Westminster squirm, a few words from her will release more mischief than a dozen Sturgeon speeches.