It’s Independence Day – or is it? Brexit and Scottish independence

15 July 2016

Charles Pattie - Professor, Department of Geography, University of Sheffield

Despite a post-Brexit consensus about the UK breaking up – might the chances of Scottish independence now be reduced?

After the UK’s referendum decision, on 23 June 2016, to leave the EU, we face considerable uncertainties. What will be the economic effects of Brexit?  We can’t be sure.  What sort of deal will the UK be able to negotiate with the EU?  We do not yet know.  Given the unprecedented turmoil in the UK’s two largest political parties (which may yet result in at least one of them fragmenting), what will be the shape of the UK’s post-Brexit party system?  We can’t yet tell.  What about the implications for the Northern Ireland peace process?  We can only guess.  All we know is that no quick resolutions are in sight.

But amidst these uncertainties, one widely-shared prediction is that Brexit will hasten the break-up of the UK. A near-consensus has built up that the Brexit vote increases the chances of a new referendum on Scottish independence (or #Indyref2, as it has been christened in some quarters).  And, goes the narrative, it also increases the likelihood that a majority of Scots will now back independence, reversing the result of the 2014 Scottish independence vote, which resulted in a relatively narrow victory for remaining in the UK.  Having dodged the threat of break-up just two years ago, the United Kingdom once again looks alarmingly fragile.

The reasons for this are not hard to see. Compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland has long been relatively pro-EU, and Eurosceptic parties such as UKIP have fared much worse there than elsewhere.  While the UK as a whole voted for Brexit in 2016, a clear majority of Scots (62%) opted to remain in the EU.  Scotland now faces the prospect of being carried out of a body most of its voters support by the votes of people outside Scotland.  At the same time, the SNP dominates the post-independence referendum political scene in Scotland.

After the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, SNP leaders Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, in accepting the decision to stay in the UK, reserved the right to call a second referendum on independence if conditions materially changed. A forced Brexit for Scotland, goes the argument, would constitute just such a material change.  Ergo, the chances of a second independence referendum go up.  And ergo the chances of a win for independence second time round rise too as Scots react to being thwarted by the rest of the UK.  QED.

But not so fast! There is a scenario under which Brexit might actually reduce, not increase, pressure for a further vote on Scotland’s place in the UK.  Consider….

Nicola Sturgeon has proved herself, over the last two years, to be a canny and skilful politician. She has been very careful not to over-promise on delivering a second independence vote, while keeping the option clearly on the table.  She knows the risks of holding, and then losing one.  Just such a miscalculation in Canada has killed off, for the foreseeable future, the prospects of independence for Quebec.  She is only likely to call for a referendum when she is fairly sure of winning.  Can she be sure now?

The short answer is that she can’t. Since the 2014 vote, support for Scottish independence has remained high.  But the balance, up until the eve of the EU referendum, remained narrowly on favour of remaining in the UK.  Polling in the few weeks since the EU referendum has seen support for independence move into a narrow lead over remaining in the UK.  But that lead is slim and cannot be guaranteed.

Here’s why it might reverse.

First, what are the economic prospects for an independent Scotland? Those in favour of independence in 2014 argued the country’s economy would flourish.  Those opposed argued that it would not.  Since then, however, economic conditions have worsened.  North Sea oil remains an important part of the Scottish economy but international oil prices have slumped dramatically.  Whereas in 2014, the price of Brent Crude was around $111 per barrel, it has fallen substantially since then, and currently sits at around $47 a barrel.  Scotland’s deficit has widened as a result.  What is more, Scotland’s important financial services industry is still recovering from the 2008 slump, and has been shaken – as has the UK financial sector as a whole – by the fall-out from Brexit.  The post-Brexit turmoil is also likely to affect the wider Scottish economy, not least as the rest of the UK is Scotland’s main ‘export’ market.  At the moment, the economic prospects for an independent Scotland look considerably gloomier than at the time of the 2014 referendum.  Strike one against a winnable #Indyref2?

Part of the attraction of independence, post-Brexit, is the prospect that Scotland will remain in the EU. But, as in 2014, some EU members are reluctant to admit Scotland.  For instance, the Spanish government is opposed, fearing it might encourage the Basque and Catalan nationalist movements.  Nicola Sturgeon’s swift move to hold talks with EU leaders in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote was a PR masterclass, making her look resolute and forward-thinking while the rest of the UK’s political leaders were caught in a palpable funk.  But it secured little beyond sympathy for Scotland’s position.  Continued Scottish membership of the EU post-Brexit cannot be taken for granted.  What is more, even if an independent Scotland was able to negotiate a way of remaining in or  re-entering the EU, it is by no means clear that current UK exemptions from EU rules – especially, but not only, the UK’s guarantees over keeping the pound – would be transferred to a Scottish state: Scotland might find that accepting the Euro becomes the price of remaining in the EU. That might not be a price many want to pay.  And with no guarantees of Scottish EU membership (or of membership outside of the Eurozone), how attractive is independence from the UK?  Strike two against #Indyref2?

Say an independent Scotland does manage to stay in the EU. What happens if the rest of the UK goes for a ‘hard’ Brexit in order to establish control over immigration?  It is hard, under such circumstances, to see how a ‘hard’ Scottish border could be avoided.  How popular would that be?  And if the UK negotiates a ‘soft’ Brexit following the Norway model, Scotland could still enjoy many of the benefits of the EU without the need for independence.  Strike three?

Finally, it is clear that negotiating Brexit is going to be very complicated and is unlikely to happen overnight. Like any divorce after 43 years together, there will be a lot to untangle.  The process is likely to be protracted, unpredictable, and painful, even if it goes as smoothly as possible.  Even though most have been dragged to the Brexit ringside unwillingly, Scottish voters will – like voters throughout the UK – be spectators throughout this process.

But if disentangling the UK from the EU is going to prove difficult, how much harder will it be to disentangle Scotland from the UK? This Union, after all, has lasted much longer, and the inter-connections across the border go much deeper, economically, socially, politically.  In the midst of going through the pain of one divorce, will Scottish voters be willing to go through the further – and probably deeper – pain of a second?  Strike four?

Does Brexit mean the break-up of the UK? Maybe.  But, for the reasons above, we can’t take that for granted quite yet.  There are plenty of twists and turns on the road still to be negotiated.  Add the prospects for the UK’s break-up to the list of uncertainties as we look into the post-Brexit world.

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