Nicola Sturgeon’s attempt to turn Brexit into a constitutional crisis won’t work

The Scottish people don’t want another independence referendum - and an abstract legal battle is unlikely to change that. 

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Is it a constitutional crisis? I suppose, after a fashion, it is. But does it matter? And if so, to whom? Those are slightly different questions.

The stand-off between Holyrood and Westminster over the EU Withdrawal Bill matters a great deal to some. MSPs from the SNP, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens are furious that Theresa May wants to retain temporary control of a handful of powers that will return to the UK after Brexit, rather than instantly pass them on to the devolved parliaments and assemblies. The Prime Minister argues, with some justification, that this is necessary to protect the UK single market in the immediate aftermath of leaving, in areas such as agriculture, fisheries, food labelling and public procurement.

On Monday, the Scottish Parliament voted to withhold its consent for the Withdrawal Bill, pitting Edinburgh and London against each other. In today’s Scottish edition of the Times, columnist Kenny Farquharson excitably insists that May’s refusal to cave in on the issue leaves devolution “existentially compromised, grievously undermined.”

Well, up to a point. The coalition of erstwhile political enemies behind Nicola Sturgeon’s refusal to agree a deal might suggest a nation aflame with anti-Westminster rage. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scotland’s politicians have a history of rolling in the muck of constitutional minutiae - it is one of their very favourite things to do. The SNP loves it for obvious reasons; the Lib Dems have a constitutional obsession that in part explain their reputation for weirdness; the Greens do whatever the SNP do; Labour is wearing its Scottishness earnestly these days, as it tries to find reasons for its continuing relevance.

The Scottish voters, not so much. The abstract nature of the matter is unlikely to turn many heads. There is a general weariness at the predictable return of north-south hostilities. There is, I detect, a general view that Brexit is happening, complicated, and that we best got on with it. Making the whole thing even harder, and more confrontational, for what seem to be reasons of legalistic principle and low politics, is a fag. Only the rabid really believe the British government – which is devolving power throughout the rest of the UK – actually wants to hamstring Holyrood, or even shut it down.

In the end everything comes down to trust, of which there isn’t much about. Holyrood (or the perma-angry bit of it) doesn’t really trust Westminster to pass on the repatriated powers in due course – hence the “power grab” language - while Westminster doesn’t trust the SNP not to distort the UK internal market before new agreements can be put in place.

Unionist voters don’t trust the SNP’s motives – is Sturgeon deliberately engineering this crisis in order to light the fire under her desire for a second independence referendum within the next few years? They point to the Welsh, who initially harboured doubts but who managed to sign off on the Withdrawal Bill yesterday, having been persuaded that Wesminster’s intentions are fair. Welsh Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford said: “We have defended and entrenched our devolution settlement. We have provided for the successful operation of the UK after Brexit.”

Meanwhile, pro-independence voters simply don’t trust the British establishment’s word on anything. They believe it holds Holyrood in contempt (unfair, only some of its members do).

So here we are, at a stand-off. What happens next? May can ignore the Holyrood vote and press on regardless, a decision that would drive both Sturgeon and Farquharson to apoplexy and set an unfortunate precedent. Or she can let the tail wag the dog. Both sides say they will continue to work towards finding agreement, but admit they remain some distance apart.

Like the good liberal I am, I can see justification on both sides. But I find the politicking at Holyrood tiring and, even when dressed up in the language of high principle, ultimately self-serving. In the end, I would judge the First Minister harshly if it became obvious - as it ultimately would - that her pugnacity on the issue is a means to an end: holding that second referendum. I fear that, if this is indeed her intention, she will anyway be disappointed. The polls show Scots don’t want another vote on separation any time soon, and what is essentially a battle over timing is unlikely to change many hearts.

Holyrood can scream and shout all it wants, but for now Scotland remains British and Westminster remains sovereign. When the crunch comes to the crunch, one must bow the knee to the other, and legal authority sits in London. Until voters are in the mood to decide otherwise, Scotland has plenty of problems of a more prosaic nature that need addressed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).