I blogged here on Tuesday following the Scottish Government’s announcement of its intention to hold a referendum to allow the people of Scotland to choose whether to accept the Brexit deal or not. I said that, at its core, this was a conflict over sovereignty. So it is turning out. At this point this is manifest in the issue of who controls Scotland’s assets. Lets look at what is playing out between the Scottish Government (SG) and the Westminster Government (WG).
The WG, as others have noted recently in respect to how negotiations with the EU might unfold, only knows one game – zero sum, one winner and one loser. The SG is more amenable to compromise solutions where everyone gains most of what they want, but have to give up a little. This is clearly behind the SG proposals for a separate brexit deal for Scotland and the WG’s rejection of it out of hand. The two approaches are clearly incompatible. The SG are aware that this approach was unlikely to be successful so, as planned have moved on to the next stage of their strategy. This also has to be a zero sum game, if one side plays zero sum so must the other. It’s all or nothing from here on all the way to an independence vote.
The intention to hold a further referendum announced on 13th March included the offer that this did not need to take place, the SG was open to talks around it’s published proposals. The threat to WG here is not secession, at least in the short term, but having its negotiating position with the EU compromised. The threat of a referendum denies the WG of all Scottish assets in its negotiations, in particular Scottish agriculture, fishing and oil. This leaves the WG with two choices, negotiate with the SG for a compromise position or refuse a referendum. At this juncture the WG has chosen to sit on the fence by saying a referendum after the UK has left the EU. This is not a tenable position, it has to commence negotiations with the EU around May this year and it can’t do this it if Scotland might leave the UK and take those assets with it. Even, if some have argued, the UK strategy will be to walk away from EU negotiations with no deal, it still requires Scotland assets in its negotiations with other countries.
This is where we are now, the SG know that the WG have to either negotiate with it so Scotland can continue to have access to the single market (its ‘red line’ position) or outright refuse to allow Scotland to hold a referendum. This week’s ’now is not the time’ statement followed by Mundell and Davidson briefing that this meant no referendum, can be seen as an exercise to test the water. It was also a bit of petty personal revenge by Teresa May to do this the day before the SNP Conference after Nichola Sturgeon stole the limelight on Monday. Make no mistake here, for Teresa May this is now very personal. She is known to be a vindictive person and everything points towards this now being a personal battle for her with the aim of annihilating her opponent – rational decisions from this politician are not guaranteed from now on. One suspects the SG were aware of this weakness in her character and have deliberately drawn her onto this ground.
So where next? Next week, we assume, the Scottish parliament will agree a motion for a Section 30 Order which then passes to Westminster for approval. Remembering this is a zero sum game for the WG they will have to, at some point, refuse Section 30 approval, probably by allowing a motion to be defeated in Parliament. In doing so it hopes to regain control of Scottish assets for its negotiations with the EU or beyond. What then, will be the SG next move? Do nothing is the most likely action in the short term. It will be able to build on the democratic outrage engendered by the refusal to grant the Section 30 and gauge the likelihood of being able to dissolve the Scottish Parliament and win a subsequent election on a specific platform to negotiate the end of the Union.