A far from normal week in UK politics

by Campbell Gunn, 3x1 Strategic Advisor.

IN a normal week, the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the consequences flowing from it, would have dominated the news. However, this has been far from a normal week in politics.

First the numbers. Theresa May has triggered Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty 2009, and Nicola Sturgeon has requested a Section 30 Order of the Scotland Act 1998.

The first sees the start of the UK’s exit from the EU, and the second requests the transfer of powers to hold a referendum from Westminster to Holyrood.

The first has been accepted by the EU, while the second has been firmly rejected by the UK Government. So, is that the end of the matter? Not a chance.

So where does Nicola Sturgeon go from here?

Theresa May has said, repeatedly, “Now is not the time.” In fact, Nicola Sturgeon agrees. She says the time for a referendum on Scotland’s future is from Autumn 2018, by which time the terms of Brexit will have been agreed by both the UK and the EU, and spring 2019, the date by which the agreement must be ratified by both sides.

A “Yes” vote in a referendum during this period would allow Scotland to remain in the EU when the rest of the UK leaves, the Scottish Government claims.

The reality, though, is that the UK Government is contemplating a much longer timescale than that. They say that a “settling down” period, during which we would see the actual effects of leaving Europe, is required.

That would push a referendum back to 2020 or 2021, beyond the next Westminster and Holyrood elections. There have even been suggestions that we could be looking at a timescale of ten years or more.

And that, of course, is unacceptable to the SNP government. But realistically, what are their options? Those of us who have been around long enough remember Margaret Thatcher telling Scots that the only way to Scottish independence was for the SNP to gain a majority of Scots’ MPs. That’s been done, but devolution and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament has superseded that position.

Now that Holyrood has voted for a referendum, which has been refused by Westminster, Nicola Sturgeon’s only weapon is political pressure.

In fact, a longer-term campaign may suit her. The longer Theresa May appears intransigent, digging in her heels, refusing to accede to, or even discuss the Scottish Government’s demands, the more Scottish voters are liable to be persuaded of the SNP’s case. That, at least, will be the SNP’s thinking.

This weekend, the Scottish Parliament goes into its Easter recess for two weeks. When it resumes in mid-April, we can expect to hear a clearer idea of how the SNP plans to proceed.

By then, the first steps in leaving the EU will have already started, and the countdown to the whole of the UK being out of Europe will have begun.