View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
18 March 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 5:20am

The SNP is struggling to manage Brexit but its independence drive could yet succeed

Faced with political chaos at Westminster, Scottish voters may resolve to take back control. 

By Chris Deerin

With Westminster consumed by the Battle for Brexit, it has sometimes felt as if Scotland’s role is to sit and watch and wait for England to make up its mind. This has not been a happy state of affairs – the neuroses of the European Research Group and the cynical manipulations of the Labour leadership seem to belong to some extra-planetary polity. And yet these people will at some point decide Scotland’s future for it.

If it has been frustrating for Nicola Sturgeon, her administration has at least tried to keep its show on the road, ploughing on with its Programme for Government and trying to ensure that business as usual – schools, hospitals, that kind of thing – isn’t wholly engulfed by the Brexit dust cloud.

But they’ve run out of time, and of space. When I met an SNP cabinet minister last week, it was evident the day job has become considerably less fun. There was sighing, a crinkled brow, wry shakes of the head, and also gloom about the prospects for next few years. Brexit has caught up with Holyrood.

Ministers in Edinburgh tell how government lawyers, whose job it is to fine-tune new legislation to ensure it meets its stated purpose, now spend their days painstakingly picking their way through existing bills to check whether they’re Brexit-compliant. What needs to be removed? What needs to be added? What needs to be re-legislated? What can be left to Westminster and what must be dealt with at Holyrood?

The possibility of no deal has been especially time-consuming – rigorous preparations must be made, purely on the off-chance, because of the enormous consequences that would flow from such an outcome. The level of time and effort that has been required to ready Scotland for an outcome that vanishingly few up here want is driving ministers to distraction.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

The consequence of this necessary work is that a lot of other things are unavoidably being left undone. That Programme for Government, for example, is going to be a lot harder to deliver when lawyers spend their days scouring yellowing bills passed 15 years ago.

The rest of this parliament – up to the next Scottish parliament election in 2021 – seems likely to be a process of crisis management, one way or another. Brexit doesn’t only require a reappraisal of past law, it also opens up vast swathes of new political territory. For example, major policies will be required on areas such as agriculture and fisheries that for decades have been dealt with at the EU level.

The SNP’s desire to reshape Scotland as a Nordic-style social democracy, pursuing gently progressive goals while gradually detaching the nation psychologically from its partnership with England, now faces the challenge of a relentless unspooling of Brexit-caused events and circumstances that will demand an instant response.

Civic Scotland – those hyper-engaged, noisy, and sometimes aggressive charities and interest groups that pursue political change in specific policy areas – is going to find an administration that is less flexible and less accommodating than it was previously. There will be less time to indulge the peripheral and the quirky. The “nice to have” will inevitably lose out to the “must be dealt with immediately”.

What will be the impact on domestic Scottish politics? As one minister puts it, “whenever there’s a problem the tendency in Scotland is to think ‘the state will deal with it’”. If the state’s attention, resources and energy are concentrated on the spiralling impacts of Brexit, that engrained statism will find itself under challenge. Labour’s chosen route back to influence north of the border has been to propose an energetic programme of nationalisations and tax rises – how realistic will that seem in the newly pressurised climate? Will there in fact be an opportunity for the Conservatives to offer a liberal alternative? “The Big Society”, anyone?

And in these extraordinary times, it’s hard to know where the Union is headed. Will Brexit be the straw that breaks the UK’s back? If an outcome that Scotland comprehensively rejected in the 2016 EU referendum turns out to be as damaging as its critics suggest, if the UK finds its role and influence in the world curtailed, and if No 10 is in the hands of an English nationalist PM while Labour remains stuck in the hard left’s web, what will Scots come to think? Will it be “better the devil you know”, or will people decide, for want of a better phrase, to take back control? Are we still Better Together?

The next few years may not be easy for Sturgeon’s government, or much fun for her ministers, but it’s not inconceivable that events will in time shift Scotland towards another kind of exit – the one the SNP has wanted all along.

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU