Friday, 4 March 2016

The EU referendum and the Sturgeon paradox

Well, have we reached peak Sturgeon? 

Until Monday I had thought of the First Minister as the most influential politician in Britain, as many Scots do.

In fact, I’d been counting on it, hoping a timely intervention by her in the EU referendum campaign, an appeal to people across the British Isles to stay in, would do the job on crucial parts of the electorate the sleeping Labour party cannot summon to the polls.

I think I was wrong. In Sturgeon’s first intervention in the EU campaign, a speech in London on Monday, she displayed the limits of her appeal. She went on to show the limits of her ambition.

Of course in Scotland, where the leader can say anything without fear of contradiction, she marches on with 60 per cent of the vote. 

But on a UK-wide platform she is being viewed differently now, and she’s aware of it.

The first thing the FM had to do on Monday was explain how, from a Scottish nationalist point of view, sharing and pooling power in the European Union is a good thing, though maintaining sharing and pooling in a United Kingdom is not.

You know, it didn’t work. Palpably, in the arm-crossed rows of the audience at the Resolution Foundation speech it didn’t work.

All day afterwards it didn’t work, as people with no connection to politics questioned me on Sturgeon’s doublethink of EU good, UK bad.

Sturgeon said it was a “misconception” that a nationalist couldn’t be in favour of pooling and sharing sovereignty, after all 28 independent nations in the EU do it. Yet Londoners saw it as a contradiction, the Sturgeon paradox.

Sturgeon made a perfectly reasonable social democratic case for the EU, I liked the architectural reference to the blitzed and restored roof of the church hall she made the speech in. Her trouble, and her limit, is that she is seen as a nationalist first, a social democrat second.

And there was a heavier irony in her speech. Here was the western European politician who has reaped the most from anti-politics trying to stem the tide.

Essentially her pro-EU message is telling the unleashed forces that have consigned everything from Scottish Labour to the Bush dynasty to the political dustbowl, to go no further. Here was Britain’s most revolutionary politician in defence of the established order.

It is tribute to her skills that she continues as an insurgent while living within another Sturgeon paradox.

We know a Brexit is the first bus to a Scottish independence referendum but Sturgeon made it crystal clear she would not welcome  one in the wake of the UK leaving the EU.

She needs this vote to go for Europe. Otherwise we would be propelled into an unbalanced, German-dominated EU in which Scots would face the choice of being governed from Britain or Berlin.

Sturgeon cannot afford a second referendum now because she knows she’d lose.
The risk-taker in Salmond would pounce at a second go; Sturgeon shows extreme caution on everything from the constitution to the council tax.

She’s radical in one respect. The FM makes a well-finessed case for immigration, and Scotland needs more immigrants.

How far she can push that argument before an immigrant-averse electorate push back I do not know.

But I hope, like Merkel, she is willing to burn some political fuel confronting voters on the issue, because few other politicians show much courage when facing that uncomfortable truth.

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