By David Gow

31st July 2018

This article was first published on


What does Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister, do all day? Tweet a bit about the books she likes, post some pix of Ailsa Craig, make the odd part-speech about, say, gender (in)equality, welcome a few jobs announcements, denounce the Tories and Corbyn. And then…?

In recent weeks we have heard nary a word about the defining issue of UK and Scottish politics: Brexit. At most, perhaps, a couple of acid phrases on Theresa May’s Chequers “plan” unravelling but on the momentum building up behind a People’s Vote or second EU referendum nothing. Silent.

Our colleague Kirsty Hughes of the Scottish Centre on European Relations has cited senior Scottish Government officials dealing with the EU as calling this approach: “strategic passivity.” Or inactivity. Aka doing nothing.

This “strategic passivity” is across-the-board when it comes to policy-making. John Swinney’s ‘Great Education Reform Bill’ has been dumped as it would never get through Holyrood when ending inequality in educational outcomes (attainment levels) was once the defining goal and passion of this third SNP administration. The Growth Commission has reported and been shredded economically, including by pro-independence commentators/experts. A fairly dramatic Cabinet reshuffle on paper has produced a mouse. Maybe the summer heat and hols have been responsible for this policy torpor. But the Government is inert.

Perhaps the First Minister is aping a former model, Angela Merkel, whose (once) highly successful approach was: Aussitzen. (Sitting it out). Are we and she waiting until the Supreme Court rules on the Continuity Bill (or Westminster power grab) in October? Or the key European Council (EU summit) in the middle of the same month? Or the SNP annual conference in Glasgow (October 7-9) before these two? Or is there more to it than this?

“Once we get some clarity, which hopefully we will in autumn of this year, about the Brexit outcome and the future relationship between the U.K and the EU, then I will consider again the question of the timing of an independence referendum,” she told ITV’s Peston on Sunday in late May.

This may be putting the cart before the horse given that May could be a goner by then and/or a general election in the offing – or the Prime Minister may have achieved an improbable success in her hands-on negotiations with Barnier and the EU-27. None of us has a clue whether and what this might be.

All we know about the Scottish Government position is that Sturgeon wants the UK to stay in the single market and customs union: a so-called soft Brexit and/or Norway-style arrangement that is so excoriated by Boris, Jacob and their gang and, we now know, the ageing chairs of moribund Conservative constituency associations in the English shires it may well flop.

It’s far from clear where the First Minister stands on a second EU referendum. Her Brexit minister Mike Russell favours one but Sturgeon has so far ignored the clamour. Yet a People’s Vote reflects the continuing pro-Remain majority in Scotland and, on current polling, would deliver a similar majority UK-wide.

Is this the source of the First Minister’s “strategic passivity” on the EU/Brexit issue? Bluntly: would an end to the Article 50 exit negotiations and continued EU membership for the entire UK scupper Sturgeon’s plans for a second Scottish independence referendum (#indyref2) by reasserting the value or at least continuity of the unitary UK state? In a (admittedly volatile) environment where pro-independence sentiment is far from secure/stable.

Or: does she hope that the Supreme Court, that has already undermined the Sewel Convention, will go further and, by backing the UK Government, wreck the 20-year-old devolution settlement, thereby unleashing an unstoppable wave of pro-independence feeling among angry Scots? Leading to the long-heralded Break-up of Britain (H/T Tom Nairn, 1977/1981).

When combined with a No Deal outcome in Brussels between October 2018 and March 2019 (ostensible date of UK departure from the EU) this extraordinary period of political instability would inevitably trigger a crisis on the foreign exchange and financial markets, sending the UK economy into a proverbial tailspin. Would this alone prompt Sturgeon to call a second referendum before the economic damage gets too bad? Or, rather, would she prefer the post-Brexit ravages to be so profound by, say, 2021 that independence (for a shrivelled economy) would fall into her lap?

We don’t know because she won’t say. But this “strategic passivity” is already causing economic and social damage. Nicola Sturgeon has a great opportunity to reassert her leadership qualities and political foresightedness by seizing the day and driving forward the People’s Vote campaign. A UK-wide decision to Remain after all would not paralyse/reverse the momentum for Scottish independence, some commentators assert.

Certainly, the tawdry displays of English chauvinism, the ugly racist sentiments behind it, the Dad’s Army nostalgia for empire, quite apart from the liars and cheats that delivered Leave, are reason enough to stay in (and reform) Europe – and quit the rotting ship of the British unitary state before it’s too late.


About David Gow

David Gow edits He is also editor of Social Europe and a former European Business Editor and Germany Correspondent at The Guardian. He contributed to The Red Paper on Scotland (1975). He co-wrote Basta! An end to austerity politics (2013). He lives in Scotland and France.