The Theresa May paradox : her hardline British nationalism means the UK’s days are numbered

Theresa May took a hardline approach in her Brexit speech

A picture of Theresa May mocked up as a police officer is seen outside the Houses of Parliament

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

After the Conservatives won a surprise fourth successive election victory in 1992 in the midst of a bitter recession, the TV puppet show Spitting Image ran a rather famous sketch.


The sketch saw assorted Tory cabinet ministers performing increasingly sadistic acts of torture on a voter, and watched in wonderment as absolutely nothing they did proved sufficient to dissuade him from backing John Major.  "No, I don't believe you really intended to do that, I'm quite prepared to give you another chance..."


UK establishment figures may similarly struggle to believe their luck at present as it becomes increasingly obvious that Scottish unionist politicians have no red lines on Brexit whatever.  Pulling us out of the single market, Theresa? That’s disappointing, but it’s no excuse for an independence referendum. Leaving the customs union?  Well, it’s not what we want to see, but don’t expect us to actually do anything to stop it.


No-one can be in any doubt now – if Theresa May had gone even further in her speech and announced that the UK, and by extension Scotland, was to be pulled out of the European Convention on Human Rights to prepare the ground for the reintroduction of capital punishment, Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrat politicians would barely have batted an eyelid. Their choice would still have been the UK, right or wrong. 


The oft-heard claim that unionism is a utilitarian belief system driven by the practical best interests of Scotland is being comprehensively exposed as a sham before our eyes. This is British nationalism, plain and simple.


In fairness, Theresa May makes little attempt these days to conceal her own hardline British nationalism (although that does beg the obvious question of why journalists have failed to press her on whether she genuinely did vote Remain, in the same way they did with Jeremy Corbyn). The comparisons being made in the right-wing press with Margaret Thatcher may not be entirely inappropriate, because just like Britain’s “first Iron Lady”, Mrs May seems to have a complete inability to empathise with those who don’t share her ideology or her nationalism. 


She somehow imagines herself to be “reaching out” to Remain voters by telling them that every single thing they don’t want to happen is going to happen. Incomprehensibly, she supposes that she is “putting our precious union first” by systematically eliminating any possibility of a compromise on Brexit with the Scottish Government, thus leaving Nicola Sturgeon with little option but to call a second independence referendum within the next two or three years.


It was difficult to know whether to laugh or cry when Mrs May reached the part of her speech which undertook to give careful consideration to the Scottish Government’s proposals, because she had already rejected those proposals out of hand. If Britain is to leave the single market and Scotland is not to be given special status allowing it to remain in the single market after Britain leaves, what is left of the proposals to discuss? It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that what Mrs May really wants to discuss is what she thinks the Scottish proposals should have been, and how – in true Thatcher style – the whole UK can easily unite if everyone just accepts that she is right about everything.


There was an even more provocative segment of the speech, albeit the wording was carefully coded. She mused that it was necessary to ensure that the “right” powers over Scotland are “returned” from Brussels direct to London, and that only the “right” powers are “passed” to the Scottish Parliament. She went on to stress the importance of “maintaining common standards” within the domestic UK market, and “protecting the common resources of our islands” (a phrase which may raise a few eyebrows in the Republic of Ireland).


Last but not least, she noted that no powers “currently” held by the Scottish Parliament will be stripped away. Taken together, this appears to be a tortuous way of signalling that the Sewel Convention, which prevents powers from being removed from Scotland without Holyrood’s consent, is to be ripped up. 


Under the devolved settlement, all powers not explicitly reserved to Westminster are automatically devolved to Scotland, unless EU law gets in the way. This means that when EU law is repealed after Brexit, many powers that are not “currently” held by Scotland will immediately be gained, unless Westminster takes positive action to claw them back, in blatant contravention of the Sewel Convention. That is plainly what Theresa May proposes to do, under the spurious justification of “protecting the common resources of our islands”. If there was even the slightest remaining doubt that Nicola Sturgeon will call an independence referendum, that gratuitous act of constitutional vandalism will seal the deal beyond all question.


Mrs May and the wider UK establishment (of which Scottish unionist politicians are to all intents and purposes an integral part) have put all their eggs in the basket of “calling Nicola Sturgeon’s bluff” on a second indyref – and they have failed, for the very simple reason that Mrs Sturgeon wasn’t bluffing. When asked whether the Prime Minister’s speech had made an indyref “all but inevitable”, she replied in the affirmative without any trace of reluctance. The unionist parties will soon have to abandon their comfort zone of demanding that a referendum should not be called, and actually get on with the much tougher job of campaigning for a No vote in that referendum. When you consider the terrain on which the campaign will be fought – with Scottish Labour having ceased to exist as a credible electoral force, with pro-independence MPs holding 56 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster, and with the hated Tories as the undisputed leading voice of unionism – you can see why they are perhaps just a tad reluctant to face up to that reality.


For Nicola Sturgeon, the prize is now there for the taking. But none of it would have been possible without the red, white and blue blood that runs through Theresa May’s veins.

James Kelly's blog, Scot goes POP!, is among the most popular political blogs in the UK. He has also contributed to a number of newspapers and magazines.

You can check out the blog here or follow James on Twitter.

James has also written for us about the madness of King Trump, the crisis created by the Brexit legal challenge and why Scottish Labour care more about Corbyn than their country.