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London And Edinburgh On Brexit Collision Course

25/10/2016 09:59
Andrew Linscott via Getty Images

The phoney peace is over.

When Theresa May assumed the prime ministership, one of the first trips - not for now a foreign visit - she made was to Edinburgh for talks on Brexit with First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Now it's Sturgeon's turn to come to London for talks with Mrs May along with the leaders of the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies.

When May went to Scotland it was all smiles and emollience from the new Tory leader -a wise move given Scots had voted to remain in the EU by a much wider margin than England and Wales voted to leave in the referendum a few weeks before.

It was no secret that many supporters of independence would now push for another Scottish referendum to prevent their country being dragged out of the EU against its will.

Twenty six months ago - yes time does fly - at the time of what was known as the Indyref, the supporters of Scotland staying in the Union with England had argued the country could only ensure it stayed in the EU if it remained in the UK.

Many at the time, including myself, thought this was a hostage to fortune.

Prime Minister Cameron had already committed to hold the vote on Europe if he won the 2015 UK general election - and - as we've now seen - he could not guarantee an EU referendum would see a victory for what would become known as Remain.

The Scottish National Party had also foreseen this possibility and kept their options open on holding a second independence referendum by running for the Scottish parliament elections in May this year on a manifesto reserving the right to call a second referendum in event of a vote to leave the EU.

So when May met Sturgeon in Edinburgh she promised to listen and consult over Brexit, while Sturgeon largely kept her powder dry taking a wait and see approach to how the new UK leader would handle Brexit.

Two months and a Conservative Party conference later, it is clear Theresa May is veering towards a comprehensive break with the EU - hard Brexit - with pledges to restrict immigration and no guarantee of continued preferential access to the single market or possibly even the customs union.

There also seems to have been precious little listening and consultation with the Scottish Government either, despite strong legal arguments that Holyrood needs to consent to the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act.

Offering the leaders of the devolved administrations a "hot line" to the Brexit Minister, David Davis, is likely to bring an answer along the lines of 'we'd prefer a line to the organ grinder and for her to take our countries' interests seriously'.

In response to London's seeming intransigence, and probably reluctantly - despite what the London media and Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson might say - Nicola Sturgeon has started the process to legislate for another vote in Scotland on the whether to end the Union with England.

Number 10 sources have made clear May will block this.

The 2014 Scottish vote was legislated for by Westminster following an agreement between David Cameron and then First Minister, Alex Salmond, and clearly Cameron's successor thinks she can veto another vote by refusing to pass the necessary legislation.

Mrs May might think this would be legally sound, but unless she wants to boost support for independence in Scotland and provoke a constitutional crisis it wouldn't be a wise course of action.

And the spin ahead of this week's meeting in London, with May in danger of sounding patronising, is unlikely to help her convince Scots she really takes their concerns seriously.

The change from the cuddly rhetoric of listening and consulting to the 'we'll make the decisions on Brexit' and dismissal of the SNP's democratic mandate to consider calling a second referendum also indicate something else Scots are unlikely to miss.

It seems Theresa May doesn't consider The Union a true union of equals - flying in the face of the rhetoric from London ahead of the Scottish referendum and the history of how the two countries came to form the UK in the eighteenth century.

But one thing is clear - the gloves are off and we seem set on course for a showdown over whether Scotland remains in the EU rather than the UK.

The unionist media in London and Scotland already seem to believe this is coming and have settled upon Ruth Davidson as the leader of the anti-independence campaign when the next indyref comes.

She is being given extensive coverage, much of it fawning, on the back of leading the Tories to second place in the Scottish election in May.

I'm not sure this is either justified or wise.

Yes, she led the Tories to their best ever result at a Scottish parliament election with 22% of the vote, but only seven of her MSPs were directly elected from constituencies rather than via the proportional vote for the regional lists.

It's also worth noting she ran by downplaying her Tory credentials and the Conservatives only won one seat in Scotland at the 2015 UK election

Pro-independence supporters are also already exposing Ms Davidson's Achilles heel - she is the leader in Scotland of the party that called and lost the Brexit vote which, as things stand, will take Scots out of the EU against their will.

On her side, First Minister Sturgeon is also on less than ideal political ground.

She has made clear she would not want to have another independence vote until it was clear she would win it and, at the moment, the limited opinion polling that's been done since June 23rd doesn't suggest a big shift has yet occurred since 2014.

It is very possible that once Article 50 is invoked and talks between London and Brussels get under way - probably next spring - the long-term economic damage from leaving the EU will be clearer and it will focus Scottish voters' minds.

But Article 50 imposes a timetable on Sturgeon not of her choosing.

A second independence referendum would need to be held before the UK leaves the EU to improve the chances Scotland could remain with the minimum disruption.

All of this means tension between London and Edinburgh will intensify and a second indyef becomes a good bet.

Given the demographics of the first vote and the continued vibrancy of the pro-independence movement, it was already likely there would be a second bite of the cherry for supporters of Scottish independence.

Now, the Brexit vote and - as importantly - the way the government in London is approaching the upcoming talks with the rest of the EU are bringing the end of the United Kingdom ever closer.

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