Since Thursday’s narrow referendum vote to leave the European Union, British Prime Minister David Cameron resigned, while his likely successor, Brexit champion Boris Johnson, seemed to be realizing the unfathomable mess he had created for himself to deal with.
At the same time, Labour MPs are entangled in a bitter, unresolvable and very public effort to dump their leader, Jeremy Corbyn — who looks likely to be re-elected by rank-and-file party members if he is ejected.
Is there a British political figure who has any credibility left?
There is. But she doesn’t work in London, but 400 miles to the north, in Edinburgh, Scotland. For those who want to save the United Kingdom, her position is a disappointment. She wants to save her country from it.
Nicola Sturgeon leads the Scottish National Party, the separatist party that holds power in the Scottish Parliament. As Scottish First Minister, she holds a position somewhat like a Canadian provincial premier, in this case more specifically a Parti Quebecois premier. (The SNP has a minority government, but with the Scottish Green Party, which is also separatist, there is a separatist majority in Edinburgh.)
Sturgeon opposed Brexit, as did most Scottish voters — 62 per cent voted to stay in the EU, as opposed to 48 per cent in the UK as a whole.
She is also one of the few prominent people in British politics not resigning or being pressured to resign, and one of the few to come out of the Brexit aftermath undamaged.
In media appearances since the Brexit vote, she has projected a calm assurance.
The morning after the referendum, she held a press conference in front of the EU and Scottish flags, the Union Jack nowhere to be seen. Her tone and the surroundings suggested an appearance by a national leader.
Sturgeon has at least three viable options, and time to choose between them:
1) Using the Scottish Parliament to block Brexit
Can the Scottish Parliament block Brexit? On the weekend, Sturgeon argued that it could and must, by voting against Brexit, because Scots had given their legislators a mandate to resist it.
Lawyers say that the Scottish parliament, when push comes to shove, can’t stop the UK from leaving the EU. But the reality may be messier. Could the SNP find ways of being obstructive enough, for long enough, to give politicians in London who are trying to avoid Brexiting room to maneuver? Will leaders at Westminster with weak hands to play want to spend capital confronting Scottish legislators?
WATCH: Scotland’s Parliament could attempt to block Britain from leaving the European Union, the Scottish leader said on Sunday.
If this strategy works as a way of blocking Brexit, it would be something of a poisoned chalice for the Scottish Nationalists, a separatist party like the PQ. Brexit has given them the best opportunity they may be likely to see, and it will be tempting to use it.
Which brings us to …
2) A referendum on independence
In a 2014 referendum, Scots rejected independence by about 10 per cent. The SNP pledged not to hold another one until there was a “significant and material change in circumstance.” On Sunday, Sturgeon argued that the Brexit referendum result was that change.
She hinted at how the SNP could frame a calmly positive case for independence, as a vote for the EU: “This would not be a decision about Scotland leaving anywhere. This would be a decision of Scotland staying.”
Britain faces, at a minimum, months of political and economic chaos in the wake of the Brexit vote. Scots, despite their own votes to stay in Europe, will be dragged along. Independence may look more attractive.
WATCH: The pound plunged to its lowest level in 30 years on Friday and fell another 2.3 percent against the U.S. dollar on Monday, to $1.3360. Mike Ingram, a UK-based market strategist, told the Associated Press that he’s hoping the UK government will unveil a “concrete plan” to deal with the decline in the next few days.
A poll held after the Brexit vote showed that Scots back independence by about seven percentage points.
3) Having it both ways
Is it possible for Scotland to stay both in the EU and the UK?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Greenland, which administered by Denmark, itself an EU country, is outside the EU.
In some ways, it solves a lot of problems. Scots could stay in the EU if they wanted to, the EU would score a large PR victory while keeping a country of five million people, and Westminster might find a way of avoiding a second Scottish referendum.
European law doesn’t currently allow for parts of existing nation-states to be members, but those laws could be changed, wrote Cormac Mac Amhlaigh, a constitutional law expert at the University of Edinburgh:
“It would be complex, it would be tricky, it would be quite unorthodox, but I think it’s certainly not impossible.”
(He did add that “this could only work as part of a transition to an independent Scotland.”)
In the British House of Commons Monday, Cameron seemed open to this possibility: “Scotland benefits from being in two single markets, the United Kingdom and the European Union, and in my view the best outcome is to try to keep Scotland in both,” he said.
“As I watch what’s happening in Westminster just now, the complete vacuum of leadership, it’s shameful what’s happened both in the Tory party and in Labour, I am determined that Scotland is going to be led, and led with purpose,” Sturgeon said on Sunday.
Britain’s Conservatives have been bitterly divided over the EU for decades, and will now face a divisive leadership process. So it would seem like the moment for the opposition Labour party to plan a return to power.
But the Labour party, divided between a centrist parliamentary caucus and a left-wing party membership that elected their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is now wrenching itself apart over Corbyn’s future. Centrist Labour MPs see Corbyn as unelectable, and are desperately trying to have a new leader in place for Britain’s next election, which may happen soon.
Dozens of Labour MPs have resigned from their opposition critic roles in an effort to get Corbyn to quit.
For his part, Corbyn says he has no plans to leave, and will run in any leadership process that is forced on him. Polls show that Labour’s rank-and-file members strongly support him.
What about the Brexiteers, in what should be their moment of victory?
This should be former London mayor, Conservative and Brexit advocate Boris Johnson’s moment. Cameron’s resignation opens a path to the Conservative party leadership and to the prime ministership. Given Labour’s fratricidal internal warfare, he might well win an election.
A much-quoted comment at the Guardian took a chillier view, arguing that Johnson had no good options, the moment after what was supposed to be his victory. As prime minister he would face a choice between delaying Britain’s exit from the EU, which would make him look ridiculous, or pulling the trigger on British withdrawal, which means that the resulting chaos — Scottish secession, a broken economy, disrupted trade, London diminished as a financial centre — would all happen on his watch.
There is an element of you-break-it-you-pay-for-it in all this, of course, but it’s one of the most unappealing cards a British prime minister has been dealt in generations.
It’s possibly why, as many pointed out, Johnson’s press conference the morning after the referendum, which had nothing of the air of a victory speech, was so subdued. Some speculated that Brexit advocates hadn’t expected to win, and had no idea what came next.
For Brexit supporters, it may well turn out that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.