May’s war on two fronts

By Adam Chaddock

First_Minister_meets_the_Prime_Minister_at_Bute_House

Prime Minister May and Scottish First Minister Sturgeon meet in Bute House, Scotland (Wikimedia Commons)

Yet again the SNP has brought Scotland to the front page and now Westminster, and particularly Mrs May, faces a war on two fronts as they seek to preserve one union, yet potentially break another.

It is an unenviable position. Current polling suggests about a 45% support for an independent Scotland, a significant proportion, especially when put into the context of an independence argument far weaker than it was last time around. The price of oil, the basis of SNP economic policy for an independent Scotland, is at its lowest in recent history. The EU and NATO have said that Scotland would not receive automatic membership. Scotland would have no army, no nuclear deterrent (though we would have nowhere to put ours), probably not an independent currency and potentially no free trade or movement with the UK, depending on how the next two years play out. It would be worse off.

Which makes the polling all the more troubling for Mrs May — there is no case for Indyref 2.0, yet it has great support. Why is this? Of course, the nature of the independence question is that it is deeply emotive; it is less bound by the usual constraints of reason and rationality, more so even than the EU referendum. Nevertheless, it highlights how the government has failed to properly sell Brexit to the 48% who are unconvinced. The political discourse in now characterised by a failing UKIP tearing itself apart, pro-Brexit groups that are too far to the right to be considered credible defenders of the Brexit vision (such as Leave.EU), and a vocal centre-left coalition united in their opposition to not just a hard Brexit, but any Brexit at all.

All the while, the government remains on the fringes, unwilling to contribute and failing to inspire any confidence which would ease us through this turbulent period. Gains by the Liberal Democrats, and more specifically their vow to oppose Brexit to the fullest extent, shows a deep rooted rejection of the government’s position on the negotiations. Mrs May has failed to sell her vision of what Brexit Britain is, and this is deeply damaging. It perpetuates the undoubtedly divisive nature of the referendum yet further, as evidenced by the call for independence from the north, and makes the nation weaker as a whole. These vital negotiations will be compromised if our EU counterparts are able to turn to election figures and polling data showing a significant rejection of Brexit, especially as Mrs May (rightly) pursues a hard Brexit.

What, then, is to be done? Mrs May has already done the right thing in denying the referendum. ‘Now is not the time’ is a bold move, but one that, we are told, has passed the focus group polling over the last three months. In doing this she avoids having to make concessions to Scotland in her negotiations, and retains at least some semblance of national unity at a time when it is most needed. In the long term this may backfire; it is after all a clear example of a hegemonic Westminster and will probably fuel the SNP’s case for independence. It is also worth remembering that Indyref 2.0 has only been postponed and will continue to loom large over the political landscape for the foreseeable future, but those are bridges to be crossed at another time.

Secondly, the recent passage of the unaltered Article 50 Bill will be crucial to the government’s negotiating position, providing them with the necessary flexibility to do the job effectively. We have some idea of the Brexit the government is working towards, but this will require constant defence. The government, and particularly Mrs May, must make the positive case for their Brexit position in light of a steady disintegration and discretisation of the groups that have previously done this, particularly UKIP. Although the opposition is not found in the Commons (Labour continue to fail to fulfil this role), to neglect it would be a mistake, and could lead to electoral failure, or more seriously a failure of the upcoming negotiations. Her fondness for hyper-manufactured soundbites is not an adequate alternative for a clear goal, outlined with confidence and presented on the basis of its merits.

The government has done well not to allow itself to be distracted by the Scots, but must now make a concerted effort to bring confidence into a process that is quickly becoming a national joke. The only thing clear by now is that, by 2020, one union will be broken, and another will survive. It is up to Mrs May to determine which it will be.

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