Saturday 17 June 2017

The frostbite of her hopes

In the aftermath of an election emotions are high, levels of spin even higher and judgement barely there at all. Politics in Britain has become uncertain. This is the third election in a row in which we have woken up to a surprise and not only one surprise but sometimes a multiple of surprises. There is a lot of noise. Everyone is trying to manoeuvre. Contradictory views are leaked to the press. Journalists are briefed behind the scenes and then when they write up the story, it is denied sometimes profanely. But no doubt the purpose is achieved by both the story and the denial. The Prime Minister receives messages of support that are not always sincere and may well be as dangerous as being called a “Dead woman walking”. In fact the support may well be far more dangerous because, after all,  George Osborne resigned his seat a few weeks ago and so is as much a figure of the past as David Cameron or indeed Harold MacMillan. Perhaps it is for this reason that he is being so nasty, or else maybe it is just because he is nasty. I always imagined poor George with a waxed moustache about to tie some lady to the railway tracks. He rather revelled in his nastiness just a touch too much. But for all her faults, the lady he wants to run over with a train actually became leader, won 42% of the vote and could still achieve what she set out to do, which is rather more than being editor of the London Evening Standard.

Theresa May has been battered, but it is perfectly possible that she will be Prime Minister for the next four or five years and successfully get Britain out of the EU with a good deal. If she does that, she will have won two crucial battles decisively and will be closer to touching greatness than any Prime Minister since Thatcher.

Two years ago the SNP won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats and 50% of the vote. It was the share of the vote that was most worrying. I can live with the SNP winning all the seats. So long as either Labour or the Conservatives win a majority at Westminster it matters little how many seats the SNP win. You can’t form a Government with 59 seats. But 50% of the vote turns an independence referendum into a coin toss.

We know how the SNP play on the emotions of ordinary Scots, how they play the nationalist/patriotic card and exploit our sense of weakness as the perpetual victim of the wicked English. With 50% of the vote and another long independence campaign to look forward to in the next two or three years Nicola Sturgeon must have thought she was almost there.

For any battle however it is necessary to have a strategy. The SNP developed theirs and it must have seemed certain to succeed. Sturgeon needed a reason to call for a second independence referendum and then she needed the support to force it through. The reason as always was a grievance. England would do something wicked, while Scotland would do something virtuous. Saint Nicola would then come to rescue Scotland from England’s clutches.

I don’t think anyone really expected the UK to vote to leave the EU last summer, just as hardly anyone expected Jeremy Corbyn to win 40% of the vote and nearly become Prime Minister. Perhaps he will do it yet. But what sort of odds would you have got on this happening two years ago? Sturgeon though had developed a strategy to take advantage of the unexpected. She made it clear that she would consider a vote to leave the EU as justifying a second independence referendum.

Scotland voted to Remain while England and Wales voted to Leave. I’ll always wonder how many of the SNP supporters who voted Leave actually wanted to ditch the EU. I’m sure some of them thought that being a member of the EU was incompatible with true independence. Why give up being ruled by London only to end up being ruled by Brussels or indeed Berlin? But I’m sure many Scottish nationalists who voted Leave did so because they thought it would lead to indyref2. This after all was the strategy. 

I remember how Sturgeon was all over the television as we learned that the UK had voted for Brexit. The BBC couldn’t get enough of her threats. Quite a lot of Scots were angry. Some “Pro UK” people who were also disappointed Remainers began to express sympathy with the Scottish nationalists. The Sturgeon strategy looked to be working.
In battle however there are strategies that appear to be succeeding just as they bring an army more and more deeply into a position from which it can be defeated. An attack on the centre can seem so close to breakthrough that it causes a general to ignore his flanks. From these flanks his position can be enveloped leading to disaster. This is what has just happened in Scotland.

Do you remember how cocky Sturgeon was? She demanded, she ranted, she threatened. Soon, soon she would have her breakthrough and independence was already in sight. But Theresa May stood firm and then Sturgeon’s position was attacked from both the Left and from the Right. The wonderful thing is that the Scottish Nationalists are not even aware of the scale of their defeat. Their leader continues on the same path. She is oblivious, insulated from a changed world none of her subordinates dare tell her about. All the while support for indyref2 goes into free fall, just as Sturgeon arranges supply drops for her troops trapped in the pocket. But the moment has already have passed. She has suffered a strategic defeat and the defeat has been because of her own strategy. No amount of self-deception changes the situation. On the contrary it makes it worse. 

The key to politics and political understanding is to grasp the long term, rather than the short term. Corbyn or someone similar to him may well become Prime Minister in the next few years. But it won’t matter. We already know that his ideas won’t succeed. The room for manoeuvre that any Prime Minister has is determined by the fundamental state of the markets. Mr Corbyn’s plans depend on his ability to borrow at a reasonable interest rate. So either his plans will have to be modified in order to give confidence to the bond market, or they will lead to an economic crisis. Socialism doesn’t work. This is the fundamental.  We may have to attempt the experiment again so that the young learn this lesson, but then we’ll just go back to the usual pattern of Labour breaking the economy and the Conservatives fixing it.

Likewise in the long run Scottish independence depends on the UK remaining in the EU. Sturgeon was right that there would be anger if Scotland didn’t get its way. But this is the anger of a toddler and equally short term.  Long term her independence strategy was holed below the water line by Brexit. Failure to realise this unfortunately is a defining feature of Scottish politics from all sides. The leaders of all the Pro UK Scottish parties oppose Brexit, apparently blissfully unaware that it is precisely the vote to Leave the EU that changed everything since 2015. What else fundamentally made voters switch from the SNP?

Because of the near unanimous support for Remain amongst Scottish politicians and journalists, Sturgeon was unable to see the fundamentals. She kept on attacking straight ahead. Every other day there was a new threat. The only word she seemed to utter was “independence”.  But it was just this that was leading her deeper and deeper into a position that was vulnerable. She ignored her day job. The Scottish economy performed worse than the other parts of the UK. Ordinary Scots could see that health, education and the police were not performing well and they began to realise it was because the SNP were so obsessed about independence they had no more time nor energy to devote to the day to day issues that were their responsibility and which affect all of our lives.

The SNP have had a slogan of “independence in Europe” since the 1980s. It is a very clever slogan, not least because it involves a contradiction and so embraces opposites. If only Scotland and the other parts of the former UK were to remain in the EU then it was perfectly possible to argue that soon enough we might barely notice the difference. After all,  If I travel between Austria and Germany, I hardly even notice the border. They have the same language, the same money. It really doesn't matter that one is ruled from Berlin and the other from Vienna. They may as well be GroƟdeutschland and yet each has "independence", the flag of a sovereign nation state and a seat at the United Nations. Those three things are enough for many Scottish nationalists even if we ended being a federal state in an ever closer European Union. 

The EU is the condition for the possibility of sub-nation nationalism. It guarantees that life would go on more or less the same, because any citizen of the EU has the same rights whether he lives in Poland or Spain, Scotland or England.  This is why Brexit is a game changer.  It takes away the guarantee. This is why support for independence has fallen and why the SNP lost so many seats. Now a vote for Scottish independence would have radical consequences. 

Britain's leaving the EU has changed the fundamentals of the independence argument.  If Scotland were in the EU’s single Market while the former UK was not, there would be trade barriers between England and Scotland. If Scotland were in Schengen (a condition for EU membership) while the former UK were not, there might have to be a hard border between England and Scotland. Sturgeon’s continual talk of independence started to make this look like a chasm. 

The SNP have had to tie themselves in knots coming up with ever more odd ways to square the circle that it makes no sense to be in a different trading bloc (the EU) to your greatest trading partner (the former UK). But it can't be done.  It is this above all that has made Scots think twice about going down this path. It just doesn't look that attractive anymore. 

Pro UK Remainers like Ruth Davidson have to be careful then that she doesn’t give Sturgeon a lifeline. The SNP have suffered a strategic defeat that has long term implications. Strugeon’s ultra-remain strategy has been defeated. But the SNP are still strong opponents. They may be in a hole, but they can still be pulled out if Ruth Davidson puts her back into it. If we soften Brexit enough, or even make it not happen at all, then we will be back where we started and the UK will be just as much at risk as in 2015. 

Always do what your opponent least wants. Nicola Sturgeon least wants us to completely leave the EU. She least wants a clean break. If the UK were to remain a part of the EU’s Single Market, then Scottish independence would once more be on the table. In those circumstances independence would not involve such a great leap into the unknown. 

Leaving the EU completely will involve repatriating powers from the EU. Some of these will go to Scotland. Leaving will also involve making trade deals with the EU and also with other countries in the world. These powers and trade deals will lock Scotland into the UK, for Scottish independence would then involve giving them up.

We can begin to tell a positive story about a UK unconstrained by the EU’s bureaucracy and with a Parliament free to act as it sees fit. Brussels will no longer be able to tell us what to do. We will be able to control who can come to our country and more importantly we will be able to deport anyone who we decide is a threat. Our Supreme Court will really be supreme rather than subordinate. It will be like the highest court in the United States. We can create a low tax, low regulation, free trade island off the coast of the Continent. This will bring us prosperity. It is time for Conservatives to talk up the possibilities of Brexit and how it can bring us the wealth that we then will be able to share with everyone. We can create a country with opportunity, fairness and social care. But unlike Labour we can ground this society in economic reality rather than a doomed attempt to continually spend more than we earn. 

It is not accidental that support for the SNP is falling. At some point in the last year ordinary Scots quietly turned away from supporting independence. This was not in spite of Brexit, but because of it. This meant that more and more people on the Left in Scotland could see that their best chance for left-wing politics was not to vote for the SNP, but rather  to vote for a UK Labour Government. Other Scots could see that decades of declaring the Tories to be toxic was the foundation for SNP support and indeed support for independence. The solution was to vote for the party the SNP liked least, the Conservatives.  The SNP are now in a pincer movement attacked from Left and Right. It is crucial that we each campaign for our own parties. Only in this way do we leave the SNP out of the conversation. But above all else it is crucial that Scots of all political persuasions realise that long term defeat of the SNP depends on us completely leaving the EU. Any sort of halfway house just helps Scottish nationalism.

For the moment the SNP are stuck. They can neither go forward nor can they go back. Sturgeon’s threats are empty and they can be ignored. There will be no indyref2 any time soon and if we continue to fight strategically there never will be. Sturgeon thought that with one more push she would have her breakthrough and be into open country. She could see freedom just across the river. But it was wider than she thought and now winter will bring with it the frostbite of her hopes.

Rave Nicola, rave about your final victory. Rage, rage against the dying of your might. Tell your surrounded troops not to surrender. Tell them to repeat after you that they can still win. They can still hear you on their radios. They may still believe you even as you begin to feel the first moments of doubt yourself.  But soon there will be just a small band of true believers and a trapped leader still giving orders to a regiment that some time ago disappeared somewhere into the snow.