I used to hate Wimbledon fortnight. Back in the days when the game was played in black and white on a screen the size of a table mat, I found it the most tedious spectacle. It wasn’t until I acquired the maturity and wisdom that comes with reaching the age of eight or nine that I realised the reason the younger me so detested tennis was their failure to understand it. They just didn’t get the game.
The older me recognised that the silly child I once was understood neither the objective of the game nor the way it was scored. To my childish mind, it seemed like all the fun of tennis lay in batting the ball back and forth. It made no sense that one or both players looked to be deliberately making it difficult for the other to hit the ball back. (Or ‘return’ it, as I later to say.) They were spoiling things. They were causing the game to be interrupted. They were making it fail.
The man in the high chair shouting random numbers and words just made the whole thing even more aggravatingly incomprehensible. While the reaction from the crowd was just unbearably perplexing. They actually seemed to like it when one of the players caused the game to break down by hitting the ball where the other player couldn’t reach it. Madness!
It was only when I came to understand the basic rules that I was able to make proper sense of what was going on. Now that I’m as grown up as I’m ever likely to be and Wimbledon is in colour on a screen the size of a dining table, I can quite enjoy it.
Politics is a game. Or, at least, it can be thought of as such. There are rules. There is a form of scoring. And it is only when one has at least a rudimentary grasp of the rules and scoring that one can begin to appreciate what may otherwise seem quite baffling – and very boring.
Sometimes political negotiations are supposed to fail. Not all negotiations are meant to end in agreement. It’s not always about maintaining a smooth back and forth between the parties. Just as in tennis, the objective can be to force your opponent into making an error. This is not spoiling the game. It is playing the game.
Which is not to say that any party to those negotiations deliberately sets out to sabotage them. Although that can and does happen. But sometimes the purpose of holding talks is to demonstrate that no agreement is possible.
Sometimes a demand is made by one party to negotiations of another in the full and certain knowledge that it will not be met. The purpose of making the demand is, not to have it fulfilled, but to expose the fact that the party of which the demand is being made is unwilling or unable to deliver.
If the demand is reasonable, or made to seem so, then refusal is bound to look unreasonable. If the demand is for something the other side has claimed to have the ability to deliver then pressing them on it may force an admission that they are actually powerless and weak.
Power is relative. So undermining the credibility and authority of your opponents is a perfectly legitimate way of increasing your own power.
At the risk of straining the tennis analogy to breaking point, the British establishment is making a lot of unforced errors. In terms of the Brexit process, the UK Government looks like its feet are nailed to the baseline as the aces fly past.
The parallel negotiations with the devolved administrations actually make more compelling viewing. There’s just a tad more subtlety and nuance compared to the clumsy and amateurish performance of Theresa May’s team in the European game. The talks between the Scottish Government and The British state’s envoys are intriguing – if you understand the rules of the game and the objectives being pursued by the players.
The British side doesn’t even want to play the game. Being British, they feel entitled to a bye. Having been obliged to play, they anticipated a walkover. But that’s not happening. Mike Russell is putting David Mundell under pressure. By demanding what Mundell is not authorised to give, Russell leaves his opponent looking flat-footed and out of his depth.
The more the Scottish Government demands powers for the Scottish Parliament, the more the British side is forced to refuse those powers. The UK Government’s hope and intention was that the whole thing could be presented as a fait accompli late in the Brexit process. The idea was that, under cover of the Brexit negotiations, the devolution settlement could be surreptitiously unravelled. Scotland’s democratic institutions would be seriously weakened. The effective political power of the SNP would be undermined. The threat to the integrity of the British state would be considerably reduced. The inevitable break-up of the UK could be postponed – perhaps for decades.
The very last thing the British establishment wants at this time is for the public to become aware of its intentions. The SNP administration is forcing them to show their hand early. and this does not suit their purpose.
When Nicola Sturgeon demands that the UK Government ensure Scotland’s continued membership of, or access to, the European Single Market, it is not because she supposes that this is possible. It is because she knows that it is not possible. It is because she knows she’s demanding something the people of Scotland voted for, but which they cannot have as long as Scotland is part of the UK.
The talks between The UK and Scottish Government aren’t supposed to end in a satisfactory deal. Both sides know full well that there is no possibility of agreement. The negotiations – to whatever extent they may be so termed – are not about finding a compromise. They are about one side trying to conceal the inevitable outcome while the other side tries to expose it.
The British side doesn’t want it known that they intend to impose a new constitutional settlement on Scotland without the agreement of, or even proper consultation with, our democratically elected representatives. The Scottish side wants make people aware that their democratic rights are under attack, but without making explicit claims about the UK Government’s intentions, which would inevitably be misrepresented by hostile media. They have to extract refusal, denials, obstructions, prevarications and obfuscations which gradually build into a clear impression.
The Scottish side has to play shots that force errors. What the score is right now isn’t clear. But the Scottish side has a distinct advantage. There is absolutely no limit to the powers which can reasonably be demanded for a democratically elected national parliament. There is a very strict limit to the powers that the British establishment is prepared to give up.
In this game, points are not always scored by ‘winning’. In the longer term, not getting what you demand may be the way to victory.
You can follow Peter A Bell at IndyRef2 and at his twitter @BerthanPete