I have, in recent years, developed something of a passion for artfully crafted detective fiction. I relish Val McDermid’s convoluted and intertwining plots and the way in which they are resolved without resort to anything more than human ingenuity working within the constraints of reality. By contrast, I thoroughly despise fantasy fiction in which absolutely anything can happen because the writer can always call on magic to work things out.
Political speculation should be like a good detective story. It has to be rooted in the possible. If the course of speculation comes to rely on magical interventions then it has gone seriously astray at some point. For political speculation to be valid and illuminating there must always be a logical next step. Or, on occasion, no next step. As with fictional criminal investigations, dead-ends are allowable. Magic solutions are not.
It is only in fantasy fiction that there can be an infinite number of possibilities – including all those which are unknowable. In real life, options are always limited and, therefore, potentially knowable. Political speculation is rewarding only to the extent that deals with knowable options. What links those options to create a chain of events is the aims and motives of the political actors involved. Identify the imperatives which drive political actors and this will be your guide as to which options are most likely to be favoured.
When the question is, “What next?”, the answer must always be something which is possible and something which is satisfactorily explained by the motives of whoever decides what’s next. Of necessity, the default assumption must be that choices are rational and informed. If it is assumed that anybody might do anything regardless of consequences then reasoned speculation becomes no better than fantasy. Human error and folly represent departures from the path of logic and good sense, so can only be taken into account after that path has been mapped.
At the moment, there is much speculation about what Nicola Sturgeon is likely to do over the coming days and weeks. Much of this speculation concerns the speech that she will make to a rally in George Square on Saturday 2 November. Quite why there is any speculation at all is something of a mystery. Imagining she might say something sensational or surprising supposes that there are lots of things that she might say – including a number of things that nobody has thought of. That is fantasy.
Other than the customary mix of ‘poor us’ indignation, well-worn platitudes and rousing rhetoric, there is only one thing Nicola Sturgeon might say that is of any significance at all. She will almost certainly put a date on her appointment with humiliation at the hands of Boris Johnson. The rally, hosted by The National, will be the perfect place to announce that she has written to the British Prime Minister ‘demanding’ that he grant permission for the people of Scotland to exercise their inalienable right of self-determination.
This ‘demand’ is totally unenforceable, of course. Given that making unenforceable demands is tantamount to asking to be made to look embarrassingly weak and ineffectual, we are entitled to wonder why our First Minister would do such a thing in our name. But we’ll come to the matter of motives later. For now, let’s focus on speculating about what happens next.
There are three ways in which Boris Johnson might respond on receiving the invitation to humiliate Scotland’s First Minister. He could accede to the demand. He could issue an immediate formal rejection. Or he could do nothing – treating the ‘demand’ for a Section 30 order with precisely the same contempt that his predecessor showed for the earlier ‘request’.
It may safely be assumed that Johnson will not buckle under the force of Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘demand’. It is conceivable that he might think to wrong-foot her by declaring – or, at least, signalling – his willingness to oblige only to then find a string of reasons to delay the formal granting of the Section 30 order. But this is improbable given that he can achieve the same effect without conceding anything.
For similar reasons, Johnson is unlikely to formally dismiss the demand. Why commit to anything when doing nothing serves your purposes at least as well? A disdainfully dismissive “Now is not the time!” worked perfectly well for Theresa May. There is no reason to suppose it won’t work for Johnson. Nicola Sturgeon had no effective response to that airy dismissal. She was left hanging helplessly right up until Theresa May departed the scene. It makes sense for Johnson to just ignore the demand.
What does Nicola Sturgeon do then? What options does she have? There might have been several courses of action open to her had she not effectively declared all of them ‘illegal and unconstitutional’. Had somebody speculated that she might squander her options in this way, I would have dismissed the notion as far too irrational. But that is the reality with which we have to deal. Having stated that the Section 30 process is the only ‘leg and constitutional’ way to go, Nicola Sturgeon has no viable alternative. Her only option is to try and force Boris Johnson to grant a Section 30 order by resorting to the courts.
Taking the matter to court could be problematic, however, if there has been no formal rejection of the ‘demand’. The issue would still be pending. No action would have been taken by Boris Johnson against which the courts could rule. It might be that the Scottish Government could ask the court to order a formal response. At which point, Johnson need only issue a refusal. Which puts the Scottish Government back where they were – with no option other than to try to get the courts to reverse that refusal.
Assuming the courts would even entertain such a request, Johnson need only revert to the plea that “Now is not the time!”. He would simply argue that the whole Brexit thing made it impossible to have an independence referendum at the moment. He would have a very strong case. Especially as the Scottish Government itself has helped make the case for him by insisting that Brexit was going to cause all manner of problems.
The sensible money would be on Johnson winning. Or, at best, the courts falling back on some kind of fudge that kicked this particular can of constitutional hot potatoes down the road and into the long grass of painfully mixed metaphors.
What then for Nicola Sturgeon’s cunning strategy of handing power to Boris Johnson while throwing away all her own options? Taking the issue to court is a massive gamble. Because, if at the end of the process she is still left without a Section 30 order, it’s over! There is nowhere else for her to go. The entire independence project will have been driven down a cul-de-sac – with no way back.
It is at this point that proponents of the Sturgeon strategy resort to magic; if they have not done so earlier. Their only response to this perfectly reasonable train of speculation is an appeal to have faith in Nicola. She has, we are assured, ‘something up her sleeve’. A magic wand, perhaps? She has cards that she has been playing close to her chest. Although they cannot be cards from a normal pack as those have all been accounted for. She has a ‘secret plan’. Although this would involve there being options available to her that are entirely mysterious to everyone else.
Which brings us to the matter of motive. Why has Nicola Sturgeon adopted this strategy? What imperative is driving her choices? One would like to think that the imperative was the restoration of Scotland’s independence. But that is problematic. Because there is no credible scenario in which the strategy serves that aim. Even if all that unseemly scrabbling through the courts led to the granting of a Section 30 order, it would be trivially easy for the British government to sabotage the process by imposing unacceptable conditions.
And, of course, the British state will not be idle whilst all the legal wrangling is going on. Even Nicola Sturgeon has acknowledged that the Scottish Parliament is likely to be ‘neutralised’ in one way or another. There isn’t any secret about the unelected and unaccountable shadow administration poised to take over powers stripped from Holyrood. The British executive has, in the course of the Brexit fiasco, secured and enhanced its ability to unilaterally rewrite the constitution so as to lock Scotland into an ‘indivisible and indissoluble’ British state.
Nobody who supports Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to the Section 30 process has attempted to address any of the concerns about the strategy. Nor have they been able to offer an explanation of how the strategy might lead to independence which does not ultimately rely on magic – or fantasy politics.
If the restoration of Scotland’s independence is not the driving imperative, what is? That is a question which I have been very reluctant to address, even as I pointed out all the massive flaws in the strategy. Three explanations – or partial explanations – occur to me.
Nicola Sturgeon is a lawyer. Which suggests that she is, by inclination and training, highly risk-averse. It is barely an exaggeration to say that a lawyer would rather lose than win by risking being held to blame for losing. So long as they can say that they adhered strictly to the rules, it is the rules that will be blamed for failure rather than them. If Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy fails, as it seems it must, then she can claim that she was only obeying the law.
This is important for the second explanation of Nicola Sturgeon’s political choices. Acting ‘lawfully’ – adhering strictly to what established power has decreed ‘legal and constitutional’ regardless of considerations of political effectiveness – is important for her future career. She is, of course, perfectly entitled to think about her own future. Failure to do so would betoken recklessness of an order which would make her unsuited to any leadership role. Ideally, personal ambition would be kept quite separate from political duty. In looking to explain an extremely dubious political strategy, however, we cannot wholly discount a lapse in this separation.
The third possible explanation for Nicola Sturgeon adopting this dubious strategy is probably the most troubling. Perhaps she genuinely believes it will work. I’d rather not speculate on what might induce her to believe that.
If you find these articles interesting please consider a small donation to help support this site and my other activities on behalf of Scotland’s independence movement.