Impact of Brexit on Scotland’s independence drive is hard to call

There is an intermediate path that the SNP may well take while it charts a path ahead, in the event of Brexit.

Kirsty Hughes
10 May 2016

Nicola Sturgeon after the SNP won its third victory in Scottish Parliament elections, 2016. Andrew Milligan / Press Association. All rights reserved. In the immediate aftermath of last week’s elections to the Scottish Parliament, some London commentators had strong but contrasting opinions on what the results mean for the chances of a second independence referendum in Scotland if the UK votes for Brexit on June 23.

In the Financial Times, Philip Stephens wrote: ““In the event of a Leave vote....Scotland’s SNP would have the platform from which to secure another referendum on independence. Few doubt that second time around the nationalists would win.”

Meanwhile, Iain Martin opined for his CapX blog entitled ‘Ruth Davidson triumph kills off Indyref II’ that, “A second independence referendum is off the agenda for the foreseeable future, no matter what happens in the EU referendum.”

In the Scottish media, a much wider range of views were apparent – not least discussing the implications of the fact that while, with 6 Greens MSPs as well as 63 SNP MSPs, there is a majority for independence in the Scottish Parliament, yet for the Greens a second independence referendum — or Indyref2 — is not a top priority.

For now, when there may be an Indyref2, let alone whether there will be one if the UK votes for Brexit is an open question — but one that will cause big political debates if the UK does opt to leave the EU.

Brexit and Indyref2 – an open question

In many ways, last week’s election results change little — there was already a diverse set of views amongst pro-independence supporters on when would be the best timing for a second independence referendum. Nicola Sturgeon herself set the bar high in saying she wanted to see a substantial and sustained shift of opinion — in the order of a 60:40% split ‘yes’ to ‘no’ for independence before calling a second referendum.

Yet Sturgeon also has repeatedly said that a material change in circumstances, such as Brexit, would potentially be a strong trigger for Indyref2.

Many others have suggested a target of 2021 would be a good time for Indyref2 — especially if the Tories had got into government again in the UK in 2020 — and allowing time to build up a stronger case for independence. In this approach, ‘no’ voters need to be persuaded by clearer, and some new, arguments on Scotland having its own currency, on pensions, and on the economy (especially as oil prices stay low).

For now, opinion polls are not much help. Scottish voters have been consistently pro-EU in polls over the last year — with a recent Panelbase/Sunday Times poll putting support for ‘Remain’ at 63% to 37% for “Leave”. In the face of Brexit, Panelbase found support for independence would go up from 47% to 52%.

But while a five percentage point increase is not insubstantial, 52% to 48% support for independence is not the sort of majority Sturgeon and the SNP are looking for before launching a second independence referendum. Nor would they have much backing from the wider independence movement at that point.

One thing many do agree on, on the pro-independence side, is that whenever a second referendum is held, if it’s lost, then there won’t be another for several decades. So the decision to go for Indyref2 is a big one and it has to be got right.

Brexit will be a shock

Yet if on 23 June, the UK votes for Brexit, this will be a huge political shock, both in Scotland and across the UK.

A vote for Brexit is likely to be in the face of votes to remain in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, and possibly also in Wales (though the 7 UKIP seats in the Welsh Assembly after last week’s elections point to sizeable eurosceptic support in Wales). A Brexit vote will spark off a major political and constitutional crisis across the UK — of which Scotland would be a very important part but not the only part.

Faced with the reality of English voters dragging Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the EU, creating outrage in those two parts of the UK, and creating a wider political crisis across the UK, with immediate economic effects probably including a falling pound and higher interest rates, not to mention resignation of the Prime Minister, Scottish voters may well think again about independence.

Sturgeon and the SNP will surely talk up the constitutional outrage of Brexit being imposed on them — and a rapid appearance in Brussels, Scotland becoming the good guys for the EU not England, can be expected.

If support for independence shifts more than the polls currently suggest, in the face of the grim reality of Brexit — say to a gap of 10% — then many may be tempted to go for a rapid Indyref2.

It will even so be a difficult call. If England leaves the EU, and Scotland bids to stay by going independent, the Scotland-England border will be the external border of the EU — and Scotland’s main trading partner (England) may well be in a different trading regime. Persuading former ‘no’ voters to stick with a shift to ‘yes’, once the immediate emotional aftermath of a Brexit vote dies down, may be tricky.

The SNP will anyway not need to call an immediate referendum. Whoever is UK Prime Minister will have to decide when to formally submit the Brexit request to Brussels. Only then will the two year negotiation clock start ticking — as set out in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. And this period can be extended by the other 27 EU member states.

There may be some political pressure on the SNP to wait and see what sort of deal the UK negotiates with the EU, before it goes for Indyref2. Yet if Scotland waited till a full deal was done, it would find itself outside the EU at that point along with the rest of the UK.

It would also be much more straightforward for an independent Scotland to stay in the EU, as a new member state that already meets all EU legislation – after some tough negotiations over the euro, Schengen and justice and home affairs opt-ins.

If Scotland instead goes along with the rest of the UK in Brexit — and in the long, complex and time-consuming procedure of repealing or amending existing EU legislation encompassed in Scottish laws — then Scotland would have, on independence, to submit a new request to rejoin the EU. This would trigger a full, formal accession process that could take several years.

There is an intermediate path that the SNP may well take, while it charts a path ahead in the face of Brexit. Although EU policy is not devolved, the need to respect EU laws is in the Scotland Act — changing that could require a so-called ‘legislative consent motion’ which the Scottish Parliament may not vote for. Likewise, the Scottish Parliament could block and hinder and stall on repealing or amending EU legislation. Such a blocking strategy would create a huge political crisis between Holyrood and Westminster.

How long the SNP — with perhaps the Greens and even a few Labour MSPs — would sustain such a political crisis and blocking strategy is an open question. So too is the effect over time on the views of the Scottish public on Indyref2.

Brexit is a much more likely possibility than many had hoped for at this stage in the campaign. The UK-wide “poll of polls” from NatCen currently suggests the race is tied at 50:50.

And predicting the impact of Brexit on Scotland — and the chances of a rapid Indyref2 — is a much more open question than some imagine.

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