Scotland and Brexit


In the maps that the The Guardian website used for to show which European Union referendum option each counting region they chose to use yellow for remain and blue for leave. That led to a sense of deja vu as yellow is also the colour of the Scottish National Party and the just like in the 2015 general election Scotland was being painted yellow, although in the referendum there was no other colour. In addition to winning in each area the margin for remain across Scotland was 62% to 38%, which was the clearest outcome of any of the four United Kingdom nations. Northern Ireland voted clearly for remain at 55.8% to 44.2%, but seven of the most Protestant (and ethnically Scottish) areas voted to leave. Wales voted to leave by 52.5% to 47.5%, which was almost identical to England's 53.4% to 46.6%. As can be seen none of the four nations were too close to call, but with two nations for and two against the overall result came out as a much tighter 51.9% to 48.1%.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has quickly moved into action in terms of seeking the European Union's support in allowing Scotland to remain a member after the rest of the United Kingdom departs, but was rebuffed with European Council president Donald Tusk refusing to meet her and the Spanish Prime Minister refusing to countenance membership of just one part of the United Kingdom. Nor was the response much better in terms of the hopes to negotiate an unbroken transition from United Kingdom membership to membership as an independent nation as European Union diplomats decreed that one part of a sovereign state could not negotiate prior to independence. The question has to asked of Sturgeon as to whether she tried to do too much too soon. The European Union is in shock and considered answers to Scotland's case were unlikely to be offered immediately after Prime Minister David Cameron attending his first (and last?) European Union leaders' summit since the referendum. Back in England there are still moves to try to ignore, annul, or re-do the referendum, and Cameron will not formally activate the process to leave via the Lisbon Treaty's Article 50. So Sturgeon was trying to negotiate at a time when the United Kingdom had not officially began the process of leaving the European Union. She could argue that she had to approach the European Union before Article 50 was triggered, because that starts an irreversible process that would take Scotland out of the European Union against the wishes of the Scottish people. The problem is that one of the people she was meeting, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, was complaining in the media that Cameron was not going to trigger Article 50 straight away. So it seems strange for Sturgeon to rush to Brussels when the European Union are still trying to work out what is going on. Unless, of course, it was a doomed to fail on purpose trip to prepare the way for the hoped for second independence referendum.

In 2014 when the last independence referendum was lost it was already known for more than 18 months that Cameron was planning an in out referendum on European Union membership. So it is likely as the Scottish National Party went into that independence referendum they already had up their sleeve Plan B, which was using a vote to leave the European Union as an excuse for a quick re-run of what was supposed to be a once in a generation vote on an independent Scotland. Ever since the loss of the independence referendum caled a once in a generation chance Sturgeon has made clear that another would be held if a material difference altered the nature of the vote and she has argued (including in the manifesto for the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections) that Scotland voting to remain while the United Kingdom voted to leave would provide such grounds. That could be seen as boosting the Scottish remain vote by seeing it as a vote for another independence referendum, but Sturgeon was at pains to stress that it was important that as many Scots as possible voted remain to ensure a United Kingdom wide remain vote.

There are two very clear reasons to believe that Sturgeon genuinely did not want a United Kingdom wide leave vote: the Quebec scenario and the Auld Alliance. The Quebec scenario refers to two unsuccessful votes in 1980 and 1995 for independence from Anglophone Canada. Despite the second defeat being less than the margin in the 2016 European Union referendum there has been no further independence vote in the subsequent 20 years. So Sturgeon has the feeling that two failed independence votes means that the chance is lost for at least a generation. The Auld Alliance is the Scottish political tradition of using support from France to protect Scotland from England. That alliance foundered in the 16th century when Scotland adopted Protestantism, while the French king took a resolutely anti-Protestant line. Scotland is far from the only small country to see independence as easier to manage in the modern world under the European Union umbrella, but the history of the Auld Alliance gives it an emotional appeal.

Nevertheless I consider that Sturgeon has tried to do too much too soon. I have been a fervent supporter from afar of Scottish independence since the 1980s, but I feel that Sturgeon needs to put her head before her heart and the Quebec scenario before the Auld Alliance. The morning after the Scottish independence vote was lost Cameron announced plans for English votes for English laws, i.e., only MPs representing English constituencies could vote on matters pertinent only to England. That caused deep anger in a Scotland not so much due to extending devolution to the English, but due to its timing. It might have made a material difference to the independence vote if Cameron had admitted that the rights of Scottish MPs would be reduced in Westminster. The Scottish National Party rode that wave of anger to win all but three seats in the 2015 general election, but that appears to have been the zenith of their power. A month before the European Union referendum a resurgent and rebranded Conservative and Unionist party overtook Labour to become the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament and came close to denying the Scottish National Party an outright majority. With all three leaders of Scotland's major parties campaigning for a remain vote the result cannot be maintained as a vote for another independence referendum, as was made clear by the Conservative and Labour leaders in the post Brexit Scottish Parliament debate.

Opinion polls showing more than 50% willing to vote in favour of independence is likely to be yet another example of the over the top reaction of remain voters to their defeat. In an actual independence referendum the danger of the Quebec scenario is just as likely. Scotland's finances are poor due to the oil crisis that is decimating the local economy in Aberdeen and the European Union is only interested in countries that can aim to run in profit. It will be hard to win an independence vote when re-entry to the European Union may be beyond Scotland's present means.

Independence was scuppered last time on the question as to whether an independent Scotland could use sterling, with the answer from England being no. An independent Scotland would not enjoy an opt-out from the Euro as that was only granted to those countries that voted against the Maastricht Treaty (United Kingdom and Denmark). Scotland would be a new entrant and so would require to be moving towards meeting the standards to enter the Euro. Ihe Eurozone is not itself in a healthy financial shape and the treatment of smaller nations within it is not promising for Scotland. It is likely that the currency question would again scupper the independence vote, especially as the Euro is so unpopular throughout the United Kingdom. So maintaining the Auld Alliance with an independence referendum is likely to invoke the Quebec scenario and end up with Scotland committed long-term to a Brexit United Kingdom.

The biggest problem for Sturgeon's hopes for using the referendum result as a material basis for a new independence referendum is he own declaration in favour of a United Kingdom wide remain vote being achieved via Scottish votes. She was quite content that England could be kept in the European Union against its will by Scottish votes, yet when that did not happen declared it an affront to democracy that English votes are taking Scotland out of the European Union. Sturgeon faces the same problem as other remain campaigners refusing to accept the leave vote: they would have been happy with any result that meant leave lost. The media certainties that Scotland will soon have a successful independence vote are based on a desire to use this fear to overturn the leave vote and its ongoing adoration of Sturgeon. Yet by pushing for such a referendum too soon Sturgeon risks not only the Quebec scenario, but also a loss of her reputation as a skilled political leader.

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