We have to be cautious about the language of politicians. A literal interpretation of what is said may not always be a reliable indicator of intent. When listening to what politicians say, it is always best to be mindful of the wider political context as well as being attentive to the precise form of words used. Politicians will, for example, make demands of their opponents, not in any hope or expectation that these demands will be met, but in order to highlight their unwillingness or inability to deliver. So, when it is reported that Nicola Sturgeon has “repeated her call for an extension to the Article 50 Brexit negotiating period”, we should not automatically assume that an extension to the Article 50 Brexit negotiating period is what she wants, anticipates, or even considers possible.
Throughout the Brexit fiasco, the largest part of the First Minister’s strategy has been to look reasonable and accommodating relative to the clown troupe actually conducting the process. A strategy which, it must be said, has not severely tested Nicola Sturgeon’s abilities as a politician. Theresa May being to the craft of diplomacy as an inebriated hippopotamus is to the art of the unicycle, looking deft by comparison is hardly difficult. If the aim is to appear ready and willing to explore all options, it makes perfect sense that the possibility of extending the Article 50 negotiating period should be mentioned – even if there is no realistic prospect of such an extension being requested by the British government or much chance of it being granted by the EU.
Talk of further dragging out the agony of Brexit negotiations may be no more than a bit of politicking. The aim may simply be to pile further embarrassment on the British political elite. It’s an easy win for Nicola Sturgeon. If Theresa May rejects the idea of asking for an extension, she looks unreasonable. If she does request an extension, she looks weak. And if/when the request is refused, she suffers yet more humiliation.
But, if we are taking due account of the whole political context, then we are obliged to consider the possibility that this is not mere gamesmanship. We have to ask ourselves whether, in this instance, a superficial reading of Nicola Sturgeon’s words may be all there is to it. We must wonder whether her suggestion that the Article 50 negotiations might be extended beyond two years is, in fact, a clue to her thinking on the independence project. If the First Minister is serious about wanting to give the British government more time to work out some kind of Brexit ‘deal’, what might this tell us about her attitude to the how and the when of action to resolve the constitutional issue?
We cannot be oblivious to the fact that those I refer to as The Postponers are part of the the context in which Nicola Sturgeon made her remarks. She will be listening to all manner of voices as she explores the options available to her. All sorts of people will be seeking to influence her thinking – including those who advocate delaying any action until some undefined – and undefinable – ‘optimal time’. There are people, some of whom may be close to Nicola Sturgeon, who favour allowing ruinous Brexit to proceed. Their thinking is that if enough people are subjected to enough pain then enough of them will turn to independence.
If this strategy seems crude and cruel and callous, that’s because it is. It is also a massively flawed strategy, as I have sought to explain elsewhere. But we cannot know to what extent The Postponers have ‘got to’ the First Minister. We have to at least consider the possibility that they have managed to convince her. We would be remiss if our analysis did not take due account of the possibility that Nicola Sturgeon has been persuaded to further postpone confrontation with the British state.
That confrontation is inevitable. It is an unavoidable part of the process by which Scotland’s rightful constitutional status will be restored. There is nothing to be gained by putting off that confrontation. The British establishment’s determination to lock Scotland into a ‘One Nation’ British state is not going to diminish. We are not going to discover some magical new independence message. However disastrous Brexit is, the British media will manipulate the perception of it just enough to prevent the backlash hoped for by those who insist that ‘Brexit is the key’. The dynamic of relative power is not going to be shifted in Scotland’s favour by anything that the British state does. That shift can only happen when we make it happen.
I listen to people in the Yes movement who suppose they can game the British political system and what I hear is a flock of sheep earnestly discussing the best strategy for hunting wolves, while the wolves get on with doing what comes naturally to them. With the SNP Conference looming, let’s hope that Nicola Sturgeon’s call for an extension to the Article 50 Brexit negotiating period doesn’t turn out to be the bleating of someone who has joined that flock.