There is a smart, hi-tech media room in the Scottish government building which overlooks Holyrood – but it has been all but abandoned since Nicola Sturgeon took over. That’s because Scotland’s First Minister prefers Bute House, her official residence in Charlotte Square, for announcements that have a chance of attracting a decent TV audience. She knows the Georgian grandeur makes her look authoritative – even presidential – and there she was again this morning when she unveiled her plans for a separate Scottish Brexit deal. It was no surprise that she was flanked – yet again – by just the Scottish saltire and the European flag. The Union flag was nowhere to be seen. It makes her look powerful, commanding and very un-British. Just the sort of gesture politics that Sturgeon does so well. The First Minister earned justifiable plaudits on the day after the Brexit vote in June when she emerged into the camera flashes at Bute House to announce that Scottish independence was back on the table again.
Today’s event was equally calculated to impress. The run-up to Christmas is always slow politically and, into that news vacuum she stepped, trying hard to appear as if she is the only one with any way to unravel the Gordian knot that is Brexit. And, to be honest, the whole thing looked and sounded good. Sturgeon did a pretty fair job of appearing reasonable and saying how much she was compromising to come up with something that would work for Scotland and the rest of the UK. She also produced a 49-page document to back up her arguments which made it really feel as if this was the first real exploration of what Brexit might actually mean. Scotland would pursue a ‘Norway’ option, Sturgeon declared.
This would mean Scotland would remain a member of the single market, whether or not the rest of the UK wanted to do the same. Scotland would do so through the European Economic Area and the European Free Trade Agreement, like Norway. And yet, and yet…Down below the impressive appearance, underneath the Bute House mirrors and pictures there were massive holes in the SNP’s argument. Sturgeon wants freedom of movement for Scotland so Scotland can remain in the single market. And, at the same time, Sturgeon insists there does not need to be a ‘hard border’ between Scotland and England. But how on earth is that going to work? Indeed, it is hard – almost impossible – to see England fighting hard to restrict freedom of movement and then accepting an open, porous border with Scotland.
But there is also the question of trade. If European manufacturers faced tariffs to trade with England but free trade with Scotland, what would there be to them from bringing goods into Scotland and then simply running them over a non-existent border into England in lorries? Similarly, if companies in England wanted to export to Europe without tariffs, they could just set up shell companies in Scotland to do just that or just drive their goods over the border and on to ferries bound for the continent.
Officially, the UK Government is going to study the Sturgeon approach before making any decisions. But you suspect that it will be the problems, rather than the potential solutions, which will exercise UK ministers the most. Sturgeon’s plan is not dead in the water – yet. But it is difficult to see how it could be accepted, either by the UK Government or by the European Commission as a workable option. It sounded so reasonable from a leader who really looked in command but, as politicians everywhere know, that is not always enough. There already appear to be too many holes in the plan to make it workable. But with independence as the last resort option if all else fails, then maybe that was exactly the point.