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On Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon Is The Smartest Person In The Room

Scottish politics is buzzing this week with something that happened at the tail end of the last one, something that is as widely misunderstood as it is misrepresented.

Nicola Sturgeon is alleged to have ruled out an independence referendum in the event the UK secures a “soft Brexit” and this, in the eyes of some, is an opportunity to make mischief and for others it’s an act of treachery.

It’s neither of those things, of course.

Instead it’s the proof that she’s learned a lot from her predecessor, Alex Salmond. She’s seeing the big picture, looking at the whole board, and doing what not another living soul in this whole shabby debate is bothering to do; she’s thinking about the voters and what’s in their best interests, rather than scrabbling for a narrow, and temporary, party political advantage.

She’s not only the smartest person in the room, she’s also the most grown-up.

Part of this is political positioning, of course; she’s a politician after all, and so it would be pretty stupid if she wasn’t at least partially playing the game. But there are games and there are Games. Right now she is playing at a higher level than that which is usually played in Holyrood and in Scottish politics generally, which is populated by simple minded cretins who act sometimes as if they are still back in the student union.

If she called an independence referendum now she and Scotland would lose it.

That’s a simple statement of fact.

The Brexit process isn’t even underway yet and her political enemies would have a field day. She would be pounded for political grandstanding when others were focused on the biggest issue the country has faced in a generation.

She’s not that stupid; indeed, her comments appeared to many as statesmanlike when placed next to those of others, and when you look at her position on Brexit itself there is nothing in her attitude with which a single true left-winger could find fault, especially when you compare and contrast the stand she’s committed Scotland and her party to on immigration with Labour’s horrible lurch to the right on the same, regardless of what Corbyn has to say on it.

When they finally publicly make their minds up about the issue expect the worst.

Sturgeon knows that stance cost her in the recent Scottish elections, and when Labour rolls out the red carpet for the most ignorant elements of society, pandering to fear and bigotry, before this year’s council races that policy will cost her even more.

Nevertheless, she and the party are sticking to their guns. They are to be applauded for that.

As Labour has no position on this which makes a shred of sense, the Scottish branch office has no coherent policy to speak of; they risk being squeezed on both sides by an SNP which is committed to free movement and a Tory Party which will pander to all the old prejudices.

But Labour’s campaigning position in some of the heartlands can be easily surmised; as a fully-fledged party of the union, and which has more and more embraced the Orange fringe they will find themselves sharing a bed with some ugly people and they will do so quite willingly for the most part. As a result, the SNP’s left flank is basically secure. Whatever votes they lose to those preaching the worst “protect our culture” tripe will be divided between the two unionist parties; she can still expect big gains, and overall control in many places.

Longer term, her Brexit stance is a no-brainer.

Negotiations between the UK government and the European Union are going to be bitter and costly.

The economy hasn’t tanked, because the government did just enough in the autumn statement to jiggle some of the figures and give a temporary boost to certain sectors of the market, but the fall is coming and it’s going to hurt. Businesses are going to leave, including banks, and when it becomes clear that we’re not going to get a sweet deal from the EU, that the Gove-Johnson-Farage axis were as full of shit as many of us said they were, the crash will come.

The prospect of the “soft Brexit” that would compel her to put independence aside is remote bordering on non-existent. She’s bluffing, but it’s a good bluff because she knows that even if May was in the mood to call it, the matter is largely out of her hands.

A soft Brexit will depend on backbench Tory MP’s and Labour’s Blairite fringe accepting freedom of movement. The hard-core Tory right won’t. The Blairite fringe is so scared of the UKIP barmy army that they can’t. It will depend on the European partners we’ll have spurned being in the mood to do us favours, at a time when it’s in many of their interests to see those who want to back out of the grand European project bleeding on the sidewalk.

It’s not difficult to see how this ends.

If Nicola Sturgeon holds firm – if the more impatient, less strategically minded independence supporters stay off her back and allow her to – then she will be able to say, two years down the line, when the process is stalled, when the economy is flat-lining, when Labour has pulled itself apart and the Tory Party is in embroiled in civil war, that she did all she could to prevent disaster.

She and her party and its supporters were willing to park their most fundamental ambition to work in the best interests of the voters north and south of the border … and that those voters were summarily betrayed by the parties of the union.

She’ll be able to say – and no-one will be able to argue – that Scotland is better off leaving those squabbling, idiot children to the mess they’ve created for themselves.

Nicola Sturgeon hasn’t given up on independence any more than Mick Jagger will ever give up on chasing skirt.

She’s a masterful player of the political game.

She understands the current of fear that runs through Westminster politics and how attuned the parties down there are to the throbbing drumbeat of the right.

She has been in enough of the European capitals to know the mood there is almost uniformly hostile to this arrogant little island which had negotiated itself rebates and vetoes and still thought the whole continent owed us more.

She knows too that Scotland is better inside the EU than out, and that the parties south of the border are too gutless to hit reverse on this disastrous journey towards exit.

Our future as part of the European project means we have to go it alone, and whether that means we get out before Brexit robs every one of our citizens of European Union citizenship or that we exit with the rest of this island only to rejoin as an independent country somewhere down the road, it makes little difference to the end result.

That makes things relatively simple, if you take the long term view.

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