From the moment the EU referendum result came in, pitching the UK into a dystopian nightmare, Nicola Sturgeon has shone. It may not be difficult to shine when you are surrounded by the kind of pantomime villains that have stalked the political stage for the past three and a half years. Nevertheless – in a morass of self-interest and lies – she has been the sole statesmanlike presence, prompting Remainers in England to gaze wistfully north.
To some extent, of course, she has had it easier than her Conservative and Labour counterparts; although, like them, the SNP has supporters on either side of the Brexit divide, she had no predominantly Leave constituencies to worry about. And because 62 per cent of Scotland voted to Remain, the argument about having to honour the democratic decision of the electorate has less resonance up here.
Sturgeon had a broadly receptive audience for her principled pro-European, pro-immigration, anti-borders stance. Still, she spoke with passion and conviction, lifting the tone of a debate that was mired in divisive, xenophobic language, and rising above other parties’ unseemly political manoeuvrings.
There were potential pit-falls for Sturgeon too; but she mostly avoided them. From the get-go there was pressure from some supporters to name the date for a second indyref and pressure from others to hold off until it was winnable. Somehow, she has managed to send out the right signals at the right times to keep both camps on side though some may have felt she was stringing them along.
There was also a danger that Sturgeon might seem too eager to profit from the rest of the UK’s pain. The harder the Brexit – one early theory posited – the more likely it was that Scots would want to break free. That theory no longer holds, but Sturgeon never appeared to gloat. Whatever personal hopes she harboured, she always seemed committed to securing the best outcome for the UK: ideally a u-turn; failing that the softest possible Brexit.
Her comparatively late backing of a People’s Vote could be regarded as opportunist; but then again the climate had changed. What drowning person offered a stick wouldn’t grab it, especially if they could take a sideswipe at Labour at the same time? In any case, it chimed with the mood of much of the country.
So sure-footed has Sturgeon’s approach been, Labour MEP David Martin called her handling of Brexit “top drawer”.
In the past few days however, the stress of parliamentary chaos appears to have been taking its toll on her party. As the 12 April deadline approaches, and hopes of remaining in the EU begin to falter, there has been a hint of panic and political clumsiness. The unity which is such an integral part of the party’s brand seemed strained.
On Wednesday, MPs Pete Wishart and Angus MacNeil defied the whip to abstain from the indicative vote on a People’s Vote on the grounds that it might lead to calls for a second confirmatory vote in the event of a successful indyref.
And then the SNP MPs abstained on Ken Clarke’s proposal for a customs union. If they hadn’t, the amendment would have passed.
According to SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, Clarke’s proposal would not guarantee freedom of movement and so was of no benefit to Scotland. But the abstentions brought accusations of intransigence and disingenuousness. After all, hadn’t Sturgeon previously spoken of securing a “common sense Brexit”? They were also portrayed as counterproductive; it is now clear that, while a hard Brexit might sharpen the appetite for independence, a hard border at Gretna Green would make it more difficult to deliver.
Perhaps, like so many of us, the SNP is in denial. Perhaps it is psychologically incapable of accepting 12 April will ever come; perhaps it still believes the Brexiteers will suddenly see the error of their ways. Or perhaps it is right and there is still a chance of reversing the result. Last night, MP Joanna Cherry confirmed she had tabled a reworked version of her Revoke Article 50 amendment. Under the reworked version, if the EU refuses a further extension, and there is no time for a referendum, Parliament would be forced to choose between a No Deal and revoking, with a commitment to a public inquiry to establish what people want.
At the same time, Stuart Hosie has joined MPs from other parties to sign the Nick Boles amendment which would keep the UK in both the customs union and the single market. But the SNP MPs are not yet committed to voting in favour of it.
Scottish Labour paid such a high price for sharing an indyref platform with the Tories, the SNP may be wary of cross-party collaboration. The problem is everyone involved is playing a dangerous game with the highest of stakes; the rules are hazy and malleable and no-one knows who is bluffing. Leave it too long and May’s deal might pass; or, worse still, we might end up with No Deal.
Last week – on the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Callaghan government – Jeremy Corbyn sent out a tweet reminding the world the SNP had put down the vote of no confidence and voted with the Tories; thus the party bears a proportion of the blame for ushering in 11 years of Thatcherism.
It was a crass gesture at a time when Labour is so catastrophically failing as a credible opposition. It said more about Corbyn’s lack of class than a decision taken when Sturgeon was still in primary school.
Yet, it does serve as a cautionary tale of how easy it is to find yourself on the wrong side of history; and the way in which the consequences of one false move can ripple down the years.
As the SNP heads into next week, it will have to tread cautiously. If a second referendum or the revocation of article 50 is still achievable, then it is right to pursue that option.
But, witnessing the scenes on Parliament Square on Friday night, it is increasingly difficult to imagine a majority of politicians will be willing to backtrack on Brexit and risk unleashing God knows what division and mayhem on our streets.
If, in the end, the choice is binary – May’s deal or a customs union, with or without freedom of movement – it would be folly for the SNP MPs to abstain again.
Voting with Labour MPs to secure a softer Brexit could at least be offered up as a victory of sorts; allowing May’s deal to pass would cast a long, dark shadow the party might find difficult to escape.