For those of you not keeping score, or for those of you who have utterly lost the plot in the past week, Brexit continues to look like a Game of Thrones adaptation with part-time actors from the community theater group, sponsored by the local gray tweed uniform store. In the inexorable march towards illogical and ill-advised isolation, Theresa May’s government has made it clear that not only is it committed to leaving the European Union along a strict (and entirely self-imposed) timeline, but it is quite willing and happy to do so with maximum destruction to all institutions and principles in its path.
The latest Brexit woes involve the potential breakup of the United Kingdom itself as both Scotland and Northern Ireland began making noises about leaving the UK to remain part of the EU almost as soon as the results of the 23 June 2016 referendum were reported. Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party (SNP) were clear that the vote to leave the EU represented a fundamental shift in the terms under which Scots had voted to remain part of the UK in 2014, and thus necessitated another vote on their fate. Moreover, as Scottish voters had chosen overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, in contrast to much of England, the population deserved the right to exercise their dissent.
Last week, Ms. Sturgeon did exactly what she promised, and announced plans to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence by the Fall of 2018 or Spring of 2019. Citing the change in Scotland’s EU membership as a mitigating circumstance, Sturgeon’s announcement dominated the news cycle and put the May government on the defensive. The press was quick to pick up reports that the announcement, dubbed ‘indyref2’ was premature, and didn’t have the support that Sturgeon and the SNP believed it would. Theresa May was quick to warn the Scottish First Minister that now was not the time for ‘game playing’ as the plan was to negotiate an agreement with the EU that would benefit the entire UK, including Scotland. True to her word, May formally rejected the request for a second referendum and accused the SNP of jeopardizing talks with the EU to serve their own ends.Who Blinks First
For the moment, tensions between May and Sturgeon are on simmer: the latter has said that there are ‘alternatives’ to an official referendum, which range from the irreverent to the outright mutinous. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has proposed a ‘third way’ to pass EU powers to the Scottish parliament (Holyrood) in the hopes of neutralizing the call.
Brown knows as well as anyone what options are available to the SNP and none of them are good news to Theresa May’s government or the UK position in talks to leave the EU. Sturgeon and the SNP could call an unofficial or indicative referendum, and if the results were favorable to independence, the government would have to take notice. She could resign and throw the entire government into turmoil at the very moment that talks with the EU are about to begin, in order to call for snap elections that would give the SNP an even greater mandate than the one they already have. She could make things very uncomfortable for the UK at the very moment that things need to go quite smoothly.
Of course, Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t need to do anything to make Brexit more difficult, or to further divide the UK voting public. The Conservative government and Theresa May are doing a bang up job of that on their own, and their stubborn refusal to back away from the cliff’s edge they seem so keen to jump is more than sufficient to undo decades of diplomatic and economic progress in the region. Indeed, May has been urged for months to find some common ground with Scottish politicians, and to make the triggering of Article 50 a unanimous decision rather than a hostage situation. Wholly apart from the conflict with Scotland and Ireland, the government admitted that it had not assessed the impact of leaving the EU before a deal was struck, despite Theresa May’s mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
However, May’s treatment of the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon as annoying children who won’t stop interrupting while the adults are talking is perhaps the very worst strategic move that she could make. Had May allowed the referendum to happen, Sturgeon probably would have had a difficult time garnering enthusiasm for it, as numerous sources pointed out. All Theresa May had to do was allow the referendum fever to pass, to give the SNP and Sturgeon enough rope to hang themselves with in the polling, and she could have quietly gone on with the business of Brexit. Indeed, EU leaders showed no desire to interfere with a domestic issue and made that very clear both publicly and privately- they’ve all got interest in staying out of it. Instead, she’s given both Scottish nationalists and Europhiles a common enemy around which to unite, one which they didn’t necessarily have before. That common enemy is her.The End Game
So why does any of this matter? First, if you’ve got a soft spot for democratic institutions or logic, this might rankle you, as it is perhaps the very opposite of those two things. The refusal of the May government to allow a Scottish referendum is entirely at odds with the underlying principle (the first principle) upon which the UK referendum to leave the European Union was held. If the UK referendum was about taking back decision-making power from a larger body whose interests clash with those of the state, then so too is the Scottish case, and perhaps even more so. Moreover, belittling the SNP’s mandate is a slippery slope for the unelected May government to travel; it is no great logical leap to wonder how the Leave Campaign or UKIP would have reacted if the EU would have forbid them from calling a referendum, citing the greater good and a need for cooperation.
Strategically, prohibiting the Scottish referendum adds further fuel to the fires of independence breaking out across the UK, not only in Scotland but in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein has had their strongest ever showing in government, and their calls for a unity vote with the Republic of Ireland are only growing louder. Despite UK government assurances that a high-tech customs area would be set up in the middle of the sea rather than erecting a border wall, Brexit threatens to derail a peace process that has allowed a generation of Irish people to grow up integrated, if not fully united. Heck, even Wales is starting to talk about independence. If the worst case scenarios are realized, there might not even be a Britain to take out of the EU.
Theresa May has it within her power to put a stop to all of this, or at least to slow it down considerably. As of right now, she seems committed to pushing ahead at full steam to the detriment of both her party and the larger integrity of the UK. By contrast, Nicola Sturgeon was able to create a balance on the Prime Minister and can now claim underdog status against an undemocratic regime, two pretty remarkable outcomes that may just undo a 300-year-old union. She’s playing games alright, because that’s what politics is all about. What more, and despite all protests to the contrary, she’s winning.