“Muddle!” cried the Prime Minister triumphantly, reminding me of something or other. She was talking about the SNP, but she should have darted a look behind her.
Pity Theresa May. Everything she says about the wrong-headedness of Scotland’s leaving the United Kingdom also applies to the United Kingdom’s leaving the EU. She cannot talk about “a tunnel-vision nationalism” without raising caustic eyebrows, or refer to “the national security of the Union” without sending her listeners’ minds to places they should not be allowed to go to, or speak of the “remorseless logic that greater economic strength and security come from being united” 1 without causing incredulous chuckles, or fits of rage, the length and breadth of the land.
This has been noticed. The mockery of a Prime Minister who cannot say anything without simultaneously saying the opposite lashed the Telegraph and Times into wild assertions that Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for a referendum on Scottish independence were “unravelling.” The evidence was otherwise. But some of the flak was nasty. “Off with her head!” screamed The Telegraph.
Oh, I see. It was a jocular reference to Mary Queen of Scots.
Mary Queen of Scots?
Ah. You didn’t mean Mary Queen of Scots, you were thinking of Alice in Wonderland.
Henry II, Thomas Beckett and Murder in the Cathedral might have been more to the point. But Alice will do.
I traced the echo of the Prime Minister’s “Muddle!” to Lewis Carroll. The Alice books resound with cries of “Nonsense!”, “Hold your tongue!”, “Do you take me for a dunce?”, “What impertinence!” and “It’s my opinion you never think at all!” We could do with more robustness off that kind in Parliament. However, Alice is in Westminster already. What better metaphor could there be for the alternative universe the Prime Minister and her cohorts are inhabiting than a landscape where time runs backwards, words mean what you want them to mean, you can change your height and believe six impossible things before breakfast, chopping off heads solves all problems, and you get to where you want by walking away from it?
It’s in this light we should see Theresa May’s remark that at the recent meeting of EU leaders in Brussels she had urged them “to complete the single market in digital services, as that would be in the UK’s best interests.”
Does she know we’re leaving the EU?
Meanwhile, the stand-off between May and Sturgeon is providing riveting theatre. This is a power struggle between two perfectly matched opponents. It helps that they are both women. That means they will both be merciless. Nicola Sturgeon is clever and ambitious. So is Theresa May, but Sturgeon is younger by 14 years. Both have a vision of the future, but the visions seem to come from different generations, and May’s cannot quite rid itself of the boot stamping on the human face for ever. Both by now are angry, but Sturgeon’s anger is fiery, whereas May’s is rancorous. It’s May who holds the power. But it’s Sturgeon who has the charisma, the imagination, the ability to compromise. For these, Theresa May must substitute gravitas. Nobody likes gravitas much, and in May’s case there is a strong suspicion that it’s a manhole cover concealing a void.
Theresa May is skirting a trap. She’s so close to it that she must be getting that prickly feeling. It’s a neat trap: if she wields her power, she may lose it, but the more she abstains from using it, the more diminished it will be. In response, she has come up with a formula that is quintessential May: “You cannot hold a referendum until the Brexit negotiations are completed.” It sounds straightforward, but it isn’t. What does she mean by “negotiations?” What does she mean by “completed”? May says she means after Britain has left the EU, which should be in the spring of 2019. Before that, Scots would be voting “blind.” Sturgeon’s response was that, according to EU law, the negotiations of Article 50 should end six months before the cut-off date, i.e., in autumn 2018, the remaining six months being taken up by ratification by the 27 member states; in that gap, the referendum should be held.
Thus she raises, for May, the frightening spectre that Scotland might vote for independence in the few months when it is just possible that the prospect of losing Scotland would create an anti-Brexit backlash in the rest of the UK, and that the EU might, in pity, let us back in.
And it is just possible.
Therefore May has poured all her abundant contempt on Sturgeon’s demands, while not explicitly refusing a referendum, which would presumably make an eventual vote for independence certain. She is not setting a date for one, either. Everything, for her, depends on keeping all her options open and closing off as many of Sturgeon’s as possible. (Who said politics was not a game?) She is playing for as much time as she can get. But the danger of this is that the longer she refuses a referendum, the more she will stoke nationalist feeling across the border. She must be desperately afraid that she will be the Prime Minister who loses Scotland. And that is Nicola Sturgeon’s strongest card.
How is Theresa May handling this? Off with Sturgeon’s head, to the Tower with the SNP. She did not reply to Sturgeon’s detailed document “Scotland in Europe,” which lays out several options for the way ahead including a compromise on the SNP’s starting position. Why not? Couldn’t she be bothered to read it? Sturgeon has signalled some flexibility on the referendum date. There has been no answering signal.
What’s odd is that Theresa May is perfectly capable of changing her mind. She did it several times in the early days of her premiership, notably on Chinese investment in a nuclear power plant. She did it on the EU, for heaven’s sake: on June 23 she was a Remainer. She has just done it on National Insurance contributions. She is intransigent only until she crumbles.
So why won’t she budge on Scotland?
Immigration/the single market, disdain for SNP pretensions and fear of the Tory right are all part of it, but the primary – atavistic – reason is that, in Nicola Sturgeon, Theresa May knows she has met her existential foe. Their positions are not just opposed, they are mutually annihilating. Sturgeon wants freedom for Scotland (never mind how she defines it). May does not want freedom. It is impossible to say what she wants, but it is not freedom because, if it were, it would sing in every speech. Sturgeon demands dialogue as a way of doing politics; May refuses dialogue, and has always refused it. Sturgeon’s motivation is (she says) justice; May’s is keeping the United Kingdom together – but it was she who imperilled it.
Sturgeon’s position is coherent, May’s is incoherent. Sturgeon can say, sincerely, that she wants what is best for her country, even if it should turn out not to be best. May cannot, because the course she is pursuing is not best for her country and she knows it. Hence every deafening silence, baffling conundrum and perplexing twist of policy that has followed her since July. This is a terrible position to be in, but she is made of stern stuff and will doubtless stick with it, probably long after she has forgotten why. However, it is taking its psychological toll. We can see it, in the rigidity of her political stance, in the strange lapse of attention over the digital services, in the compulsive, unconscious mirror-speak to the SNP.
In the stand-off, it is May who carries the axe. But she has become used to being able to push Parliament around, and the same tactics won’t work with Scotland. She senses it, without knowing what else to do. Everything she says about her opponent is a statement about herself. This means that everything she does will rebound on her. Both the Looking-Glass world and Wonderland were dreams that, at the end, turned into nightmares. Alice got out of them by waking up. Theresa May will not be allowed to.
1 All three quotes are from the Prime Minister’s speech in Glasgow to the Scottish Conservatives’ Spring Conference.