Nicola hopes Brexit will fan the flames of independence. It could still turn her dreams into ashes…
By Graham Grant
IT was back in 1995 that George – now Lord – Robertson declared that ‘devolution will kill nationalism stone dead’.
Yet the mocking laughter that usually accompanies recollection of the former Shadow Scottish Secretary’s mistaken prophecy is a little unsporting.
The idea was logical enough – that by devolving power to Scotland, the argument for all-out independence, and the huge economic gamble it would entail, becomes far less attractive.
Making similar predictions now carries the risk of becoming a Robertson-esque hostage to fortune, but it hasn’t stopped speculation about other potential curbs to separatism.
A federal UK – a United States of Great Britain – is something of a bogeyman for some Nationalists, who fear it would render their push for full-on independence redundant.
But another roadblock for the Nationalist cause comes in the unlikely form of Brexit – the very process that has triggered SNP calls for a repeat of the 2014 referendum.
Brexit is loathed by all the on-message separatists, of course, who love to peddle the fiction that Scotland is a nation of Europhiles – despite a million Scots and a third of SNP voters advocating EU withdrawal.
But, for some, Brexit also represents the supposed salvation of the SNP’s eternal goal of the break-up of the UK – providing a supposedly ideal pretext for another poll on the country’s constitutional future.
What the SNP is rather less keen to talk about, at least in public, is the huge potential Brexit offers for a raft of new powers to be transferred from the EU to the Scottish parliament.
It has been left largely to former senior SNP figures, such as ex-Health Secretary Alex Neil, to point out that Scotland would gain control over fishing, employment law, environmental and consumer protection, social policy and even VAT.
For a party that prides itself on standing up for Scotland, this might seem counter-intuitive.
Why would the SNP miss a chance for a change in the devolution settlement equivalent in scale to those brought about by the Calman and Smith Commissions?
Well, it does queer the pitch the Nationalists are attempting to make for Scotland to cling onto EU membership, in defiance of all political and legal reality, or to retain access to the EU single market.
It is necessary to preserve this fantasy – debunked even by Nicola Sturgeon’s EU adviser, Charles Grant, as ‘not viable’ – to maintain the push for another independence poll that fewer than 30 per cent of Scots actually want.
Nearly three years after the first ‘indyref’, the argument for separation is like an old banger being pressed back into service despite an MoT failure and a list of engine defects that should have taken it off the road forever.
There was some breathless coverage yesterday of a new Edinburgh University report claiming Scotland could have the fastest and easiest ever entry into the EU if it becomes independent.
But this drivel overlooked the unpalatable reality that Scotland – while wrestling with a Greek-style £19 billion deficit, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research – would also have to state its support for joining the euro.
Alex Salmond (once as passionate about the euro as he was about Donald Trump) knew this was likely to be the greatest possible turn-off to most Scots ahead of the 2014 poll.
He put his chips instead on the continued use of Sterling, a plan that now seems dead in the water.
And last year, a pro-independence think-tank, Common Weal, estimated Scotland would need at least £10 billion in reserves to establish a separate currency of its own.
We are constantly told by Miss Sturgeon that Scots voted in their droves to remain in the EU (even though turnout was 67.2 per cent).
But how many of the 62 per cent of people who voted to stay would still want to be part of the EU if Scotland were forced into adopting the euro – as it inevitably would be if it joined as an independent state?
If Scotland were to leave the UK and attempt to join the EU, it would have to pass back all of those shiny new powers from the Brexit windfall to, er, the EU.
Some may understandably feel a sense of déjà vu and even creeping despair at the thought of ‘new powers for Holyrood’ – after all, politicians have a nasty habit of using them for tax raids.
But, as the Tory revival reminds us, the Scottish parliament will not always be dominated by the SNP.
Admittedly, kicking the SNP out of power after a disastrous decade in office would be the surest way of removing independence from the political agenda.
But the Brexit dividend for Scotland, criminally under-explored by the SNP hierarchy, would deal a heavy blow to the separatists.
There is also support across party lines for a good Brexit deal for Scotland.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is among those calling for devolution of powers over regional policy, agriculture, fisheries, social funds and employment law.
But for some on both the Unionist and Nationalist sides, alarm bells are starting to ring about the UK Government’s commitment to ceding those powers to Holyrood once they are repatriated from the EU.
Advocate and former Labour MP for Edinburgh North Mark Lazarowicz (CORRECT) pointed out last week that the UK Government has said only that it will ‘have an opportunity’ to decide on greater devolution of power post-Brexit.
He accepts it would be strategically wise of the UK Government to ensure the safe passage of those powers to the Scottish parliament, to stymie the pro-independence movement, while doubting the ability or willingness of Theresa May’s administration to do so.
The omens at times are far from promising and there is undeniably something of a ‘tin ear’ at Downing Street for Scottish politics.
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon displayed admirable candour when asked recently about the possibility of Westminster allowing another Scottish independence referendum before 2020, saying simply: ‘No, forget it.’
He is quite right that it is not in Miss Sturgeon’s gift to snap her fingers and instantly call a new poll – but his brusque dismissal of the idea was counterproductive.
On the morning after the 2014 referendum, David Cameron was entitled for a moment to bask in the triumph of the No campaign, but instead he used the occasion to call for ‘English votes for English laws’.
His comments immediately undermined the Unionist message at a highly sensitive time in our political history, when symbolism and the use of language were more pivotally important than ever.
True, action can speak louder than words, and the transfer of powers to the Scottish parliament following the 2014 ‘indyref’ did indeed go ahead, as the No campaign had pledged.
Scottish Secretary David Mundell said last November that that a raft of further powers would be handed to Holyrood as a result of Britain’s vote to leave the EU, stressing that no functions would be ‘re-reserved to Westminster’.
But he ruled out control over immigration being passed to MSPs, which seemed premature.
Whatever the problems of policing differential immigration policies, there is no doubt that Scotland, with a growing elderly population, is in greater need of migrants than the South-East of England.
The UK Government faces turmoil over the coming months and indeed years as it negotiates our exit from the EU, but it cannot afford to fan the flames of the independence cause.
Brexit may not be a silver bullet for separatism but it does represent an unmissable opportunity – if not to kill nationalism ‘stone dead’, then certainly to take the wind from its sails.