Ian Swanson: Who will blink first in the Brexit stand-off?

Theresa May meets Nicola Sturgeon in Glasgow. Picture: SWNS
Theresa May meets Nicola Sturgeon in Glasgow. Picture: SWNS
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THE frosty meeting between Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon in a Glasgow hotel this week said all that needs to be said about the state of relations between the UK and Scottish governments at a time of unprecedented constitutional turmoil.

With Mrs May set to begin the UK’s exit from the European Union today with her Article 50 letter, triggering the two-year process for withdrawal, and last night’s vote by the Scottish Parliament to endorse Ms Sturgeon’s request for Holyrood to be handed powers to hold a second referendum, the horizon is filled with unparallelled upheaval.

But the two governments are working to different agendas and there seems little or no common ground.

Monday’s meeting was part of a series of visits by the Prime Minister to the constituent parts of the UK ahead of today’s Brexit landmark. But it was far too late for any meaningful discussion about the approach she was going to take – and, according to Ms Sturgeon, she was left none the wiser about what Mrs May had decided to put in her Article 50 letter.

The Prime Minister was not willing to discuss an independence referendum either and in interviews would only repeat her mantra: “Now is not the time”.

So having arrived at stalemate nearly two weeks ago, nothing has changed and the stand-off seems likely to continue.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs yesterday that in recognition of the importance of the triggering of Article 50 today, she would delay the formal Section 30 request for the referendum powers to be transferred to Holyrood until later this week.

But intriguingly, she also promised that if Mrs May – as seems likely – still refuses even to start talks on a fresh independence vote, she will set out her “next steps” on the matter after Easter.

What can she be planning? There should be no doubt of the seriousness of the situation if the Prime Minister simply ignores Holyrood’s request. Scotland’s Brexit Minister Mike Russell has pointed out that never since devolution has the UK Government refused to discuss an issue with the Scottish Government.

Leading historian Professor Sir Tom Devine of Edinburgh University wondered in a radio interview if Ms Sturgeon might consider following the example of Irish MPs in the late 19th century who resigned en masse from Westminster, or alternatively calling a Scottish election.

Professor Devine argued that Mrs May’s attitude on the referendum request would do the cause of independence no harm, rather as Margaret Thatcher is sometimes remembered as the “mother of Scottish nationalism”.

He also pointed out that demographics are on the SNP’s side. The latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey found support for independence at a record high – with younger people more in favour than older folk.

And he repeated his view that there was still a possibility Brexit might not happen. He believes the sheer complexity of negotiations, the many obstacles in the way and changing views among politicians and the public make the chances “at least 50-50 that there will not necessarily be a Brexit at the end of the process”.

If he is right, then despite the current uncertainty and upheaval, it could be that both the independence and Brexit debates will eventually be resolved in Ms Sturgeon’s favour.