Why the SNP should be seen off.
It is a jack-in-a-box time of year. No sooner had the Government obtained the authority of both Houses of Parliament to begin the Brexit procedures by serving notice under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, than up pops Nicola Sturgeon with a demand for a further referendum on Scottish Independence. In late 2018 or early 2019 too, at least six months before the date on which we are due to leave the EU.
The obvious question is: "why?" No, not why the Scots should want to revisit their independence following the EU departure, but why they are trying to hold a referendum then, before the outcome of the negotiations is known. No one pretends that if the day comes when they really wish to leave the Union they will be denied the opportunity, so why do they not wait until they have seen what comes out of Brexit and then, having watched it for a bit, either go along with the result or seek a further referendum at that stage?
That would seem the obvious approach and, more than that, it is an approach which they owe to the rest of us. The decision reached in their last referendum was that they would remain in the UK. That does not just mean accepting subsidies from England but also participating wholeheartedly in the struggles in which the UK is engaged. At the moment, the UK faces a difficult time over Brexit and one would expect to find Scots politicians standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest of us and not causing deliberate political damage (for that is what it would amount to) in order to further their own political ambitions.
Of course, Ms Sturgeon and her legions do not put it like that. No, they say, it is merely a reaction to the possibility of a hard Brexit and a necessary precaution to give the Scots a choice between the consequences of that and an independent relationship with the EU which might not be available later. It is hard to believe in any of this.
As to the first part, the Government's negotiating position can hardly have come as a shock. Immigration was at the centre of the Brexit campaign and no one could have expected Britain to join the EFTA, which would mean an open border for foreign workers. Then there is the contingency planning for a no-deal exit. That too is unsurprising. The UK has to treat a no deal Brexit as a possibility if it is to have any leverage in its the negotiations with the EU. If the EU negotiators believed that we had to do a deal, they could simply write down its terms and present them as an ultimatum. It follows that making contingency plans for a "no deal" outcome is an essential step to achieving something sensible, and that is something of which Ms Sturgeon must be fully aware. Once the decision for Brexit was taken, this stance became inevitable, and if Ms Sturgeon is trying to say that the government of Scotland should not be bound by the Brexit referendum result, she should put it in those terms.
Her protests that the British Government has not engaged with her does not really wash either. At the moment Mrs May is keeping her cards very close to her chest. The reasons for that are obvious. The negotiation is to be a difficult one carried out in very uncertain circumstances. Above everything she needs the flexibility and the ability to change her stance - and particularly her overt stance - to meet events. If she makes statements as to her approach in advance she cuts down her manoeuvrability, quite apart from undermining her negotiating position. The right course is to stay schtum for as long as possible and is for this reason that she is correct in refusing to give any protection for foreign nationals living in the UK until the EU comes up with something reciprocal.
So let's go to Ms Sturgeon's second point, that if she does not call a referendum before the UK result is available she may miss the possibility for an independent Scotland to negotiate a new deal. Theoretically there is a point here, although it only has weight if the EU is prepared to complicate matters by a separate negotiation rather than deal with Scotland's position subsequently. Who knows whether it will or not, but any opportunity for Scotland would be bought at a double price. The first part would be paid by all of us. It would severely jeopardise the UK's negotiating position to have to state the expected outcome in a way which would satisfy the Scots some six months before the negotiations came to an end. That is just the point at which we may be trying to force the EU to compromise by threatening a no deal exit. The second part would be paid by Scotland and flows, possibly as an alternative, from the first. In view of the importance of protecting the negotiations with the EU, the government would not be able to state its position frankly to the electors of Scotland who would thus go into the referendum on a basis of distorted and incorrect facts. Perhaps that is permissible in the context of a post-truth Trumpian world, but it is no way for the fate of a great nation to be determined.
Ms Sturgeon must know that for all these reasons she will not get the Government to agree to the referendum she demands. Why then is she demanding it? As always one needs to look at the lowest domestic level, and in this case that is the position of the SNP.
The cautious approach of Mrs May is far more in tune with the Scots than was that of her more flamboyant predecessor, so it may be that SNP support has reached its zenith. Is her demand a way of preserving its momentum by launching a fresh campaign? Or is the strategy more devious than that? The suggestion that a Scottish referendum be called at a time designed to jeopardise the Brexit negotiations will antagonise public opinion in the rest of the UK. A flurry of anti-Scots rhetoric south of the border - where people are likely to regard Ms Sturgeon's initiative as a betrayal - could boost her party's fortunes. What better way of garnering support for a party whose record is looking a little threadbare domestically - the decline in the rankings of Sottish education to below that of England, for example - than to create an external "enemy"? Abuse from England? Just the ticket.
It is not given to us to open windows into men's souls or the souls of women either, and so the exact motives of Ms Sturgeon must remain a mystery. Not so the correct way of dealing with her demand. Mrs May should refuse the request for a referendum on the grounds that it is simply not practical to make the disclosures which would be necessary to put the arguments fairly. It should then be up to Scottish Governments elected after Brexit to decide whether to press for a further referendum or not.