Nationalist leaders in both Scotland and Northern Ireland ponder independence referendums following Brexit.
Glasgow, United Kingdom – It was not Britain’s Conservative Party prime minister, David Cameron, who has now been replaced by Theresa May, nor was it the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who emerged from Britain’s post-Brexit confusion to stamp their authority on a situation not seen in recent British political history. Rather, it was Scotland’s nationalist first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
Like Cameron and Corbyn, Scotland’s premier had advocated a “Remain” vote and thus found herself on the losing side of the June 23 referendum. Yet, by the following day, only her most ardent detractors were casting a critical eye over Sturgeon as she took to her feet at her official Edinburgh residence of Bute House.
Presiding over a united Scottish National Party (SNP) at the Scottish Parliament and with 62 percent of Scots having voted to retain the UK’s EU membership, Sturgeon took little time to outline what she perceived as Scotland’s differing status within the UK family of nations and to state that a second Scottish independence referendum was now “highly likely“.
A fluke of history had conspired to put a woman regarded by political friends and foes alike as one of the most talented politicians of her generation at the centre of British political life.
“She spotted a political opportunity and grabbed it with both hands, and as everyone generally agrees the FM did so with aplomb,” said David Torrance, author of her biography, Nicola Sturgeon – A Political Life.
“Ensuring that she had a voice in the post-Brexit discourse and alerting European leaders to firstly, her existence, and secondly, the fact Scotland had voted differently. It also helped create momentum behind a renewed push for independence.”
Indeed, within days of the Brexit vote, Sturgeon, who also took the opportunity to calm fears of those EU citizens living in Scotland, had secured a mandate from the Scottish Parliament to take her case for Scotland’s explicit wish to continue its EU membership to Brussels where she met with senior European officials, including European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament president Martin Schulz.
There Sturgeon received a “sympathetic response” but fell foul of acting Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy who, mindful of the strong independence movement within the Spanish region of Catalonia, stated that “Scotland does not have the competence to negotiate with the European Union”.
But Sturgeon’s success in gaining access to the heart of the EU project – as the leader of a constituent nation of a member state – made waves across the entire EU bloc.
“She really has turned this ‘defeat’ into an opportunity,” the University of Edinburgh’s James Mitchell, co-author of Takeover: Explaining the Extraordinary Rise of the SNP, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a good measure of leadership of whether you can see opportunity in any circumstance and leadership involves making contingencies for even eventualities you don’t like – and clearly she has been ready and prepared,” Mitchell said.
As Sturgeon herself also made clear, such an “opportunity” also included talk of a second Scottish independence referendum – less than two years after the first on September 18, 2014 when Scots voted 55 to 45 percent to reject sovereignty.
Several opinion polls following the Brexit vote have now suggested that there is majority support for Scotland going it alone. And earlier this month, when Sturgeon hosted a meeting with foreign officials at Bute House, the Austrian honorary consul said it was “clear that were Scotland to be independent, it would be welcome in the EU – there would be no question about that”.
The honorary consul general of the Czech Republic went one step further by indicating his personal support for Scottish statehood.
Such European overtures were almost entirely absent during the 2014 campaign when pro-independence supporters struggled to get any kind of EU backing.
The former solicitor, who is married to the chief executive of the SNP, assumed the role of Scotland’s first female first minister two months after the SNP’s bruising September 2014 independence referendum loss, which saw the resignation of her political mentor, Alex Salmond.
Salmond had made history for the SNP when he guided the party to its first success at the 2007 Scottish Parliament election – winning by a solitary seat and forming a minority government. He then made history again when he secured the parliament’s first ever majority victory four years later.
As deputy leader of the SNP and Scotland’s deputy first minister, Sturgeon also suffered the ignominy of defeat when the forces of the union prevailed in the 2014 plebiscite, but she seized her chance when the moment came for a change at the top.
Ridding herself of a persona that often led her opponents to label her overly serious and prickly, she quickly met the demands of high office and became something of a cult figure as legions of admirers soon began seeking her out for selfies on the campaign trail.
“I remember talking to a Scottish political journalist two or three years ago and when I asked, ‘Who is going to take over from Salmond?’ and he mentioned her name, I sort of scoffed, if I’m honest,” said Ian Dunt, editor of London-based politics.co.uk.
“I just thought really, ‘have they not got anyone better than that?’ And it’s been quite a slap in the face – she’s performing with considerably more confidence and self-assurance and basic functional competence than anyone leading a political party south of the [Scottish] border.”
Indeed, following her political promotion, she passed her first test with flying colours when the SNP secured 56 out of 59 Scottish constituencies in the May 2015 UK general election – a number that saw the party improve on its previous tally of just six Westminster MPs.
And in May this year, the left-leaning Sturgeon won an emphatic victory – and crucially her own mandate – at the Scottish Parliament election.
Sturgeon, who was called the “most dangerous woman in Britain” by the pro-union Daily Mail prior to last year’s UK general election, has not had it all her own way, however.
Her narrow failure in May to retain the SNP majority that had been won by Salmond in 2011 – despite the Scottish parliamentary system being designed to prevent that very outcome – was a disappointment for her, though an independence-supporting majority in parliament remains.
She also drew the wrath of many on social media after posing with a copy of the Scottish Sun in the wake of April’s English Hillsborough inquest verdict, which found that 96 football fans were unlawfully killed – contrary to the original reporting of the newspaper’s English-based version which saw it blame fans for the 1989 stadium disaster.
Yet, since she took on the role of first minister, most observers agree that Sturgeon has appeared more than comfortable with the challenges of leading a constitutionally divided nation. Seen as naturally shy, and not as flamboyant as her predecessor, she has nevertheless successfully furrowed her own path, said pro-independence supporter and political commentator, Lesley Riddoch.
“If you pick up that Malcolm Gladwell theory that after you’ve done 10,000 hours you become pretty good at something, then she’s done her 10,000 hours,” the author of Blossom – What Scotland Needs to Flourish told Al Jazeera.
“While nobody was watching, because all the focus was on Alex [Salmond], she was developing her own persona and getting pretty good at it.”
Yet, with a new British prime minister, and with Brexit negotiations set to consume UK political discourse, the re-emergence of the Scottish independence debate looks likely to take on renewed focus. And that, said Torrance, is what will surely define her premiership.
“The polls have shifted but not by enough to guarantee victory, and if she goes too soon then she’ll follow Salmond and David Cameron in being compelled to resign,” said Torrance, whose Sturgeon biography will be re-published with an update in August.
“My hunch is she’ll wait a couple of years to try and sort out other arguments – mainly economic – but even if ‘indyref2’ was won she would then face huge challenges in making it all work. Though, I guess, her place in history would be secure.”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter : @Alasdairsoussi