Analysis: After the No Confidence vote falls - is the SNP ready to lead?

Mike Russell’s response to Theresa May’s defeat will not settle any of the arguments around a People’s Vote, but confirms that the Scottish Government has more options than an embattled British state

“ALL under heaven is utter chaos,” goes the cheery old dictum. “The situation is excellent.”

But, in wake of a defeat for Theresa May so humiliating it has actually made history, excellent for whom?

The writer and respected wizard Alan Moore once argued that, in order to solve the crimes of Jack the Ripper, it would be necessary to solve the entire society in which the crimes took place. A similar argument could be made in light of today’s response from the Scottish Government’s Brexit minister Mike Russell to this week’s ‘meaningful vote’, which has obliterated both Theresa May’s mandate to govern, as well as her entire government’s raison d’etre.

Russell’s ministerial response – which revealed that the Scottish Government is now pushing forward with “regrettable” preparations for a potential No Deal exit from the European Union, including decisions regarding “medicines, on clinical and consumable stockpiling [and] emergency transportation” – could not and should not be seen within the vacuum of the Holyrood chamber, or even the context of Scottish politics and devolution alone.

Rather, a web of still-unfolding events surrounded Russell’s speech, the vibration of each strand affecting the structure as a whole, leaving – as ever – the question of who is the spider and who is the fly.

As MSPs gathered at parliament, Nicola Sturgeon was in Westminster, meeting with SNP MPs in preparation for her possibly pivotal statement today that she will “say more” about a timetable for a second independence referendum “within weeks”.

READ MORE: In defence of devolution: Scottish parliament approves Continuity Bill as emergency legislation

Throughout Scotland, an unbowed but increasingly impatient independence movement, rich with long-simmering strategic and ideological division, are arguing still – and will likely continue to do so for some time – about its relationship with the SNP, the SNP’s tying of independence to the issue of Brexit, the question of EU membership itself, and the increasingly bitter recriminations over the possibility of a ‘People’s Vote’. Neither Russell’s speech nor Sturgeon’s intervention will change any of that, though the prospect of some long-awaited certainty on indyref2 will likely focus many minds.

Then, there is the small matter of a No Confidence vote taking place this evening, which every SNP MP has signed, and upon which many of the possibilities presented by Russell today hinge. The Scottish Government, Russell said, would “relish” a General Election, but failing that will step up its efforts to secure a second referendum on EU membership.

This places further pressure on Jeremy Corbyn’s “constructive ambiguity” on Brexit and almost everything associated with it, which – as necessary as it may have been to hold together a Labour Party fragmented on the issue – could only ever be, at best, a short-term solution, especially given that it has satisfied virtually no one, and has, in the interests of keeping options open, kept just as many off the table.

Amidst so much uncertainty, Russell’s speech made clear that he recognises the same reality as much of the independence movement, if not the other parties in Holyrood that have otherwise formed a consensus and isolated the beleaguered Scottish Tories, who sat through Russell’s statement like moody teenagers in detention. The Scottish Government enjoys a legitimacy that its UK counterpart now does not.

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In his contribution, Labour MSP Neil Findlay argued that the prime minister has no “credibility”, while carefully avoiding the words “mandate” - a term which would have led to some uncomfortable conclusions for Scottish Labour, because Scotland’s is the only government in the UK left standing that has one.

This theme was picked up and articulated by Scottish Green co-convener Patrick Harvie: “Our parliament has a clear majority against Brexit on principle; a clearer majority in favour of a People’s Vote, and an even clearer majority in favour of casting a No Confidence motion at Westminster against the UK Government.”

Given that Russell was probably aware of what the First Minister’s announcement comments today would entail, his speech focused more upon a People’s Vote, rather than a second indyref. This made Adam Tompkins – a man who does vaudeville impressions of a constitutional scholar while drawing an MSP’s salary – look even more foolish than usual, when he treated the gallery to a reprise of his contention that the SNP remains obsessed with independence.

Pointing out that the SNP would like an independent Scotland is not, Tompkins may regret to discover, a shocking revelation, nor is it quite the crowd-pleaser it once was, now that the unionist constituency which placed so much of its faith in the Scottish Tories has seen precisely how badly the Conservatives handle the responsibilities of power.

Russell’s focus on a People’s Vote today will doubtless enrage those on the Scottish left who oppose the institutions of EU. His characterisation of the union as a model of pan-European solidarity will seem particularly risible to those who wonder, with ample justification, where that solidarity was when Greece was squeezed beyond endurance, or when Catalonia bled in the streets.

More to the point, such voices will argue, what assurances can Scotland expect from a People’s Vote? With both the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament holding an inarguable mandate, what might need to be sacrificed in the name of second plebiscite, that might “save” the UK from Brexit, but deliver nothing for the cause of the Scottish independence, or Scottish democracy?

READ MORE: Analysis: Is history closing in on Corbyn's 'constructive ambiguity' over Brexit?

However, those on the left who most vociferously oppose a People’s Vote are also those agitating for a General Election as the best means of unseating the Tories. This implicitly means the election of a Labour government, a proposition which – while certainly more palatable to anyone who has experienced the hard end of Conservative rule – requires just as many sacrifices from the independence movement as a People’s Vote.

Should a Corbyn government be delivered, what measures would be taken to address the democratic outrage that saw a Scottish majority ignored in the original EU referendum? What recognition of the Scottish mandate would be offered by Labour, which – Corbyn’s lukewarm equivocating not withstanding – has shown no indication it would allow the Scottish Government to pursue anything, beyond business as usual?

Questioning the Brexit minister, SNP MSP Gillian Martin hit the nail on the head: if the Labour leadership does not get behind a People’s Vote, backed by the parliament which represents Scotland’s democratic will, what other options does Scotland have?

I’ll give you a hint – it begins with ‘I’.

In November – not, despite how it feels, a lifetime ago - the journalist Adam Ramsay argued that ideally, he would prefer a General Election, a People’s Vote, a Scottish independence referendum, a Welsh independence referendum, an Irish border poll, and a complete rewriting of the English constitution. “They aren’t mutually exclusive,” he pointed out, for the benefit of those who wilfully fail to recognise the obvious.

If Russell’s speech today was any indication, the Scottish Government may be – at least partially – following Ramsay’s advice. Heading off predictable criticisms, Russell said that, in the event of a People’s Vote, there should be a “substantial discussion” on the nature of such a referendum, to address the democratic deficit which saw Scotland’s majority ignored in the prior plebiscite – especially since, Russell said with extreme understatement, there are “no plans” to change the Westminster franchise.

The SNP has, as many in the independence movement will tell you, been keeping its powder dry for some time now. After the defeat of the No Confidence vote in the House of Commons, is Sturgeon now starting to load the cannons?

Picture courtesy of the First Minister of Scotland

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