After the week we have just had in Westminster it is tempting to think anything is possible and it seems that some of the impossible thoughts are permeating to the surface, one such thought is that Scotland can stay in the EU and the Union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Just how any of that would work is beyond anyone’s imagination but the idea is floating around at the moment. It is, of course, part of the uncertainty over what exactly does Leaving the EU mean which was narrowly voted for in the recent referendum. You have to have sympathy with Nicola Sturgeon when she looks at the trainwreck of a hand she now has to play.
On the one hand she has the rightful anger of the Scots who voted by quite a clear margin to stay in the EU set against the fact that should they stay in the UK they will leave. This has stoked the fires for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Leaving aside the fact that the Scottish parliament cannot order a new referendum, this is one of the reserve powers of the Parliament in London, Scotland gaining independence at the moment would be even closer to lunacy than anything else I can think of. This doesn’t mean that should the Scots wish to leave the union they should be prevented, in fact at the last referendum I was in favour of that, mainly because I felt it would allow a more mature relationship to develop between England and Scotland. No instead I think the timing is awful for the Scots – let me explain why:
Timetable – The most likely date that the UK will leave the EU is sometime in 2019, possibly early 2020. During that time the UK Government will be concentrated on making the whole thing work in principle, let alone in any detail which will probably take years more to sort out. Equally, the EU commision will be doing the same whilst trying to keep the other nations of the EU onside with what they are proposing which won’t be easy. A very simple example of this would be to think about the likely employment opportunities presented by the removal of the City of London from the single market with France, Germany and Ireland competing to try and attract the ‘EU’ operations of the City of London – I think that Ireland is likely to win this race but it has to be said I haven’t got the first clue about that. The EU is not united about what Brexit means for them other than a huge amount of upheaval. Given this the last thing that they would truthfully be interested in is further complexity of trying to accommodate Scotland.
Equally, Trying to organise a referendum and negotiate the separation of the union between England and Scotland in the two or so years outlined above is next to impossible. The earliest that a referendum could be organised would be spring 2017 which would mean that the separation would have to take place by no later than the formal separation of the UK from the EU for Scotland to still be part of the EU when it becomes an independent nation. It is just not going to work;
Vote for Independence – Last time the vote for independence wasn’t as big as the vote to remain in the EU so it is tempting to see this as a clear signal that this time the vote for independence would go the way that the Nationalists want. This is an incorrect analysis of the situation and don’t take my word for it look at the actions of the First Minister herself. She is clearly far from certain that she would win a new independence referendum otherwise she would be already calling for one now. Independence in 2014 was so much more simple than it would be in 2019/20. For one thing back then Scotland and the rest of the UK would have been inside the EU which would have made trading between the two countries so much more easier. Now it is so much more complicated with the distinct likelihood that an Independent Scotland would have to apply to join the EU which would take years to accomplish. Then there is the whole question of the strength of the Scottish economy outside of the UK – just what would Scotland have to do to meet the EU requirements? And lets not mention oil here shall we. So in short the timetable is against Scotland and any vote would be against a backdrop of real uncertainty with no short term gains to show for independence. This would make things so much more difficult for the SNP. However, on the flip side that is exactly the same situation that the Leave campaign faced and they won so never say never but it is unlikely to succeed now anymore than it was in 2014;
Ireland – The one country that stands to gain the most from Brexit is Ireland. I know this sounds somewhat far fetched given the complex relationship with the UK along its common border but this can be managed as it is in both side’s interest to make it work. The real problem for Scotland is that Ireland is a direct competitor for the displaced UK companies looking for an EU home so that they can continue to trade within the single market. If this does come to pass then it is not going to be in Ireland’s interest, no matter how fraternal they might appear on the surface, to help a newly independent Scotland. It was interesting that one of the first meetings that the First Minister had after the Brexit vote was with the Irish Prime Minister. I am sure they gave the impression that they were best buddies but Scotland’s lose will be Ireland’s gain as both will be fighting for the same access to their single biggest market England. Both countries might like beating England at football or rugby but both know that England can make or break their economy so Scotland would be foolhardy to assume that Ireland would do them any favours should they require them – this includes helping a newly independent Scotland gaining or retaining their EU membership on favourable terms;
So at the moment any thoughts of Scottish independence are just that thoughts. This doesn’t mean that the Scots, should they wish, not gain their independence it is that things are so much more complicated now than they were in 2014 and one can only dread to think what the situation might have been for Scotland had they voted for independence in 2014 and the negotiations would have been in full swing by now when the Brexit vote would have destroyed so many of the assumptions upon which the previous negotiations between Scotland and the rest of the UK would have been based on. In short the devo max that is the most likely outcome for Scotland after Brexit would suit most of the Scots and I suspect that the First Minister knows this but she, like the Prime Minister have to deal with their fringes which can cause untold damage if they aren’t kept under a tight leash.
One final thought. Alex Salmond is writing a new book about the options for an independent Scotland. It should be a fascinating read but given his last tome on this, the White Paper on Scotland when he was first minster then I suspect it won’t be as grounded in the new realities any more that was. And you thought that Theresa May had a hard road ahead.