Andrew Hughes: The secret game of pass the parcel that Sturgeon and May are playing on Brexit

Writer Andrew Hughes analyses the reality behind the political games on Brexit

AS I write, Nicola Sturgeon is setting out her proposals for securing Scotland’s place in the single market after the UK leaves the EU. 

She’ll laud immigration, stress the importance of freedom of movement and explain why all of this is such a good thing for the country. I don’t disagree.

But the main point has already been made. Stephen Gethins has been doing the rounds this morning saying it – namely, that the UK Government has vowed to give Ireland the same thing that Scotland is asking for.

I’d give the first minister 6-12 months to freely meet with EU heads of state, with the express purpose of persuading them to let Scotland stay.

"If Ireland can maintain freedom of movement and the common travel area ... there’s no reason why Scotland can’t do exactly the same thing," he told the BBC.

"If Ireland can have a common travel area and the Westminster government doesn’t think that will imperil [the economy], why is Scotland different?"

We will be hearing this argument until a) Scotland joins the single market, b) Scotland becomes independent, or c) we die. And I can see why.

However it pans out, the UK’s policy on the Irish border is a plus for the SNP. The question about checkpoints along the Scottish-English border dogged the nationalists during indyref. But it’s already resolved for indyref 2 – and it’s the UK Government that has done the heavy lifting. 

'We’ll have the deal you gave Ireland' will be the cheerful answer whenever it comes up.

I’d do it for three reasons. One, because it would be great for the UK at large if it actually happened. The Brexiters of England get to 'take back control'. Scotland gets the free market. 

In the meantime, there’s a different question. How does Theresa May respond to the government’s Brexit paper? How does she respond to the first minister’s clear statement that Scotland wants to stay in the single market?

If I was Theresa May, I’d say three words to Nicola Sturgeon: "Go on then."

I’d give the first minister 6-12 months to freely meet with EU heads of state, with the express purpose of persuading them to let Scotland stay.

I’d do it for three reasons. One, because it would be great for the UK at large if it actually happened. The Brexiters of England get to 'take back control'. Scotland gets the free market. 

All those worries about whether companies will relocate to Ireland or to mainland Europe? Now it’s a question of whether they change their head office from London to Edinburgh. The UK economy benefits either way, arguably Scotland benefits most of all. A genuine best of both worlds – and one where more people get what they voted for. What could be better than that?

The third reason is the clincher - and where the first minister’s goals hit against hard political reality. I’d let Nicola Sturgeon spend a year trying to make this happen because the EU will absolutely, positively, definitely say 'no'.

The second reason is less positive, but still to do with managing the different countries of the UK. The fear with Ireland is a return to hard borders and police-patrolled checkpoints. That’s terrifying because of the spectre of terrorism rearing its head again in Northern Ireland. 

So the UK and Irish governments are right to say 'let’s come up with a solution, let’s move heaven and earth to minimise the risk of that happening again'. But it’s a perverse logic that says 'let’s not give the same thing to Scotland if it wants it'. 

There is a worrying strain of logic that having a traumatic, violent past related to national identity will get you a cushier deal on borders and possibly improve your access to the single market. That is a horrific message to send to wholly peaceful nationalist movements elsewhere in the UK.

That’s not an insignificant point. But the third reason is the clincher - and where the first minister’s goals hit against hard political reality. I’d let Nicola Sturgeon spend a year trying to make this happen because the EU will absolutely, positively, definitely say 'no'.

They’ll do so to ward off Europe’s anti-EU and nationalist movements. The EU doesn’t want leaving the EU to look attractive; that way everyone might try and do it. If you’re giving special deals to regions – and worse, special deals to regions of countries that aren’t even EU members any more – then it’s open season for the nationalist movements and populist uprisings of Europe to expect the same thing. 

The EU doesn’t want leaving the EU to look attractive; that way everyone might try and do it. If you’re giving special deals to regions then it’s open season for the nationalist movements and populist uprisings of Europe to expect the same thing. 

They can each devise the version of EU or single market membership that’s most attractive to their audience and say it’s entirely within reach. They’ll all claim a precedent: 'Well, Scotland got it. Why can’t we?'

Any government with a separatist or populist opposition snapping at their heels will vote against it. Spain and the Catalans. Marine le Pen. The Alternative fur Deutschland. The Italian Five Star Movement. Almost every EU country has an opposition that would benefit from this.

The EU can’t allow its membership options to feel like a well-appointed buffet menu, even if keeping Scotland in the tent would boost its coffers slightly. 

So let’s be clear – as long as Scotland is part of the UK, this will not happen. Theresa May knows this. I believe Nicola Sturgeon knows this. So there’s a proxy war going on – a game of pass the parcel. Neither of them wants to be the one who has to admit that Scotland can’t get a different deal to the rest of the UK.

In that context (and taking the analogy a bit too far), today’s announcement is Nicola Sturgeon shoving the parcel of EU disappointment into Theresa May’s lap and saying: "Here, here’s a nice long list of everything Scotland wants from the EU. Now tell us that we can’t have it and I’ll reap the political benefit."

So let’s be clear – as long as Scotland is part of the UK, this will not happen. Theresa May knows this. I believe Nicola Sturgeon knows this. There’s a proxy war going on.

Theresa May wants to look in control. She wants a unified plan for the UK and the last thing she wants to do is provoke another independence referendum.

Counter-intuitively, the best way of doing that would be to swallow some pride and let Nicola Sturgeon spend the next year failing to deliver all this stuff instead. 

In other words, she should hand the parcel right back.

Picture courtesy of First Minister of Scotland

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