If the measure of a politician is their ability to consistently secure rewards completely out of line with their material achievements, then Nicola Sturgeon is a very able politician indeed.
Despite not managing to replicate Alex Salmond’s overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, she has nonetheless managed to maintain the SNP’s hegemonic grip on politics north of the border despite its woeful record of actually governing.
And she has done this by successfully keeping the separatist movement united under her own party and its quasi-autonomous foederati, the Greens, despite making no progress towards independence whilst in office.
The First Minister might be a true believer in independence, but she’s also a realist. It won’t have escaped her notice that the needle of public opinion hasn’t moved on breaking up the United Kingdom, both ‘despite Brexit’ and having the deeply unpopular Boris Johnson presiding in Downing Street.
And whilst the ‘Yes movement’ managed to come out of the last referendum campaign much stronger than it went into it, the experience of the Quebecois sovereigntist movement suggests a second defeat would be much more damaging. So she doesn’t want to risk one.
But if that’s the case, why has she marched her soldiers up this hill, again, by once against launching a ‘push’ for another vote?
Well, the Nationalists can’t afford to park independence either. First, because a big chunk of their activists would defect, and a lot of their voters might start flirting with other parties or staying at home.
Second, because once you decisively take independence off the table for a while there is nothing to talk about but your domestic record. This column sometimes does extended tours of the sheer volume of bad stories coming out of Scotland. Just this week we have another for the pile: a major report suggests the SNP’s handling of care homes during the pandemic ‘likely led to deaths’.
The SNP don’t want to talk about that. Or schools. Or the NHS. Let alone the long-delayed ferries. They want to talk about independence. So here we are.
As it is, this latest push looks like something of a paper tiger. The Nationalists have not solved any of the major economic holes in the case for separation, and have been reduced to cherry-picking international examples and trying to wish away Scotland’s substantial public spending deficit.
Likewise, Sturgeon has not yet formally requested the powers she needs from Westminster to conduct a legal vote. Whilst some separatists would certainly be up for holding an illegal one, it would be boycotted by unionists and command no international legitimacy, so it would be an unlikely move for a First Minister who has, until now at least, resisted the zoomer wing of her party.
For its part, the Government should deny her the set-piece battle she clearly craves. Polite refusal to authorise a second vote should be partnered with additional scrutiny of the Scottish Government’s various domestic woes, and ministers in London should otherwise get on with the day job.
Why would the DUP take Johnson at his word?
The Government’s new strategy for the Northern Irish Protocol is not landing as badly with the Party as we might have expected. Moderate and legally-informed voices, such as Robert Buckland on this site, have come down on the side of action. Criticism has been relatively muted.
However, there does seem to be at least one landmine Liz Truss and the Cabinet might step on: the Democratic Unionists.
Yesterday, the Times reported that the Government has issued with the DUP with an ultimatum:
“Ministers have warned unionists in Northern Ireland that they must make a “clear public commitment” to re-enter power sharing with Sinn Fein before the government proceeds any further with its Brexit bill.”
There are two problems with this. The first is simply that, given the Prime Minister’s record on Northern Ireland and the sea border, the DUP can be forgiven for doubting that the Government will proceed with this controversial legislation in the event that things in the Province settle down.
But the more serious point is that the threat undermines Truss’s legal argument. As I noted the other day, the Government is invoking the ‘doctrine of necessity’ to justify using legislation to override an international law commitment. The basis of necessity is that urgent action is needed to protect a country’s essential interests, in this case the Belfast Agreement.
Does it not undermine the argument that the new Bill is urgently needed if ministers can threaten to just pause it until the DUP fall into line?