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. 

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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.

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.

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