The Scottish Government is limited in what it can do but Nicola Sturgeon is playing a canny game, writes Ross Laird, Director of Public Affairs at Grayling Scotland.
If there’s one thing to get the SNP animated, it is watching the Conservative Party Conference. Theresa May’s mantra of Brexit means Brexit and the comments by Amber Rudd certainly caused a stir in the SNP ranks. Such tough talk from the Conservatives only ratcheted up the rhetoric from the SNP at their recent autumn conference – you would think that the Conservatives were in league with the Devil given some of the chat at the conference. However, peel away the rhetoric and it appears that the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is playing a canny game.
While the UK Government have been busy deciding on its overall positioning regarding Brexit – not least the timing for triggering Article 50 – the Scottish Government has been trying to put in place a number of more practical, local solutions. These have ranged from establishing committees to appointing people to lead various strands of negotiations and Nicola Sturgeon has promised a proposal on Scotland staying in the Single Market. All this is on top of Ministers jetting off to Brussels for further talks with EU Members. There is, however, a limit to what the SNP can do.
Ultimately, despite the warm reception that the First Minister and colleagues received in Brussels, she does not represent a Member State. In addition, the FM can put all the additional resources she wants into easing the impact of Brexit on Scotland and coming up with her own solutions, but she’s not the decision maker on what the deal looks like. So it is perhaps hardly surprising that Sturgeon decided that her voice (she claims it is Scotland’s voice, but that is more ambiguous) needed to be heard loud and clear in Whitehall – hence the rhetoric at the SNP Conference. Sturgeon is also clinging on to the one tangible announcement that implies there is not a one size fits all solution to Brexit – a separate arrangement for Northern Ireland.
The truth is that without there being a tangible deal to discuss it is hard for the Scottish Government to have any real influence at this stage. And the strength of Scotland’s position is not overly helped by the fact that UK Ministers are not particularly interested on developing a Scottish position. However, this is all about gaining bargaining power and being seen to do something (the SNP being very artful at being both a governing party and yet remain a campaigning party) – give Scotland a distinct EU deal and we won’t feel obliged to push on with a second referendum. If a separate Scottish EU deal cannot be done, then ensure that Scotland can maximise its take of powers being repatriated. And if all else fails, Sturgeon can throw her hands in the air and say enough is enough and call a referendum.
With the triggering of Article 50 only months away, the SNP knows that it only has a short period to marshal its arguments and its troops. We can expect to see a lot more activity in the months ahead. The question is whether Theresa May will be in a listening mood and, if she’s not, if she is prepared to accept that it could drive more voters towards the SNP.