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Theresa May Needs To Break The Impasse Between Scotland And The UK

13/04/2017 15:44 BST | Updated 13/04/2017 15:44 BST
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The UK Government and the Scottish Government are at an impasse. On 28 March the Scottish Parliament voted to request a second independence referendum, the Scottish National Party (SNP) joining with the Scottish Greens to secure the majority. Theresa quickly rejected the request May. With Brexit to deliver, and with the shape of the UK-EU relationship post-Brexit unknown, May's response was simple: "Now is not the time."

It suits Nicola Sturgeon for the impasse to continue. It keeps the constitutional question at the forefront of political debate, something that works in the SNP's favour. For Sturgeon, the hope must be that the Brexit talks falter at an early stage, perhaps triggering a shift in preferences on Scottish independence. For May, the strategy seems to be to kick the can (not very far) down the road and hope that the laws of political gravity return to Scottish politics, dragging down support for the SNP and independence.

How did it come to this? Although the UK as a whole voted for Brexit, a clear majority in Scotland voted to remain. Sturgeon immediately took issue with the prospect of Scotland "being taken out of the EU against our will" and began to soften the ground for another referendum. In December 2016, Sturgeon's government produced a paper that called for a 'differentiated Brexit', that is a Brexit in which Scotland would establish a closer relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK. If the UK Government were unprepared to support Scotland in that quest then a second independence referendum would likely be called.

In presenting the paper, Sturgeon claimed that the proposals represented "a significant compromise on the part of the Scottish Government - not a high bar for the UK government to pass". But the December 2016 paper was intellectually dishonest and was in no way a meaningful attempt at reaching a compromise with the UK government. It set out an all-but-impossible demand and made fulfilling that demand the litmus test of Theresa May's reasonableness.

Is there a way to break the impasse? For die-hard Scottish nationalists the aim will remain independence. But is there a way for the UK Government to appeal to those in the middle of the Scottish political spectrum? The Prime Minister needs to find a strategy that does two things. First, it must engage Scotland - and Wales and Northern Ireland, and perhaps even some of England's city-regions that will get directly elected Mayors on 4 May - in a dialogue about the governance of the UK. Second, it must offer the prospect of new powers for the devolved parliaments, within new UK-wide frameworks made possible by the return of powers from the EU.

UK Government ministers have said that powers returning from the EU will not necessarily go automatically to the devolved parliaments, but rather first to Westminster so that UK-wide frameworks can be negotiated. Such words can be read one of two ways. The generous way to read them is that UK ministers are being honest about the realities of Brexit. Many of the returning powers can, and likely will, be devolved, but UK-wide frameworks will be necessary to ensure smoothly functioning, well-regulated and fair markets. The less generous way to read them is that UK ministers are tin-eared and tone-deaf to how their words are received in the UK's nations, and especially in Scotland.

What the Prime Minister now needs to do is make a virtue of the necessity that her ministers have identified. Before Sturgeon delivers her next counterpunch, May should launch a dialogue - through the established mechanisms of the UK's Joint Ministerial Committee and associated channels of intergovernmental relations - involving the First Ministers (and perhaps the new Mayors) in a process in which the end point is the transfer of new powers. If the UK Government's recent Great Repeal Bill White Paper is anything to go by, this is an area where additional thinking is urgently required.

Not only is it practical to involve the devolved governments in these discussions, it is politically the smart thing to do. Tone counts for a lot in politics and such a move by May and her ministers would help to 'reset' a tone that has, to date, been overly blunt and cool towards the devolved administrations. How would Sturgeon respond? Accepting May's offer would be to enter a process of dialogue and to co-own an important and difficult policy problem. Rejecting the offer would be further evidence in support of the theory that the SNP see Brexit primarily as a weapon to be deployed in support of their quest for independence.

May and Sturgeon are engaged in a high stakes game, with the future of the Union at stake. Neither of them can feel confident that they hold a winning hand. Somebody needs to try something different.