Everyone can now see how difficult it is to break up a unionby Alex Dean / February 14, 2020 / Leave a comment
Scottish independence has rocketed back up the agenda. Scotland has been dragged out of the EU against its will, which means there has been a material change since the 2014 poll that went 55-45 to the unionists. The SNP surged dramatically in the December election. Nicola Sturgeon now claims an unequivocal mandate for a second indyref and Holyrood elections next year could boost the case further, forcing the prime minister Boris Johnson, who has until now refused, to consider granting the Westminster permission needed for a legitimate ballot. There is even talk in some quarters of a unilateral referendum without London’s permission.
But has Brexit really given the nationalists a better argument? It is true that independence might offer Scots a chance to reverse Brexit. But on the other hand Brexit presents new challenges for independence. It means Scotland would definitely have to rejoin the EU as an independent country, where some say it could have difficulty meeting the accession criteria. Added to that, recent events have shown just how difficult it is to disentangle a longstanding Union. Brexit has surely changed the terms of the argument for Scottish independence. But has it made it a better idea or a worse one?
The position of unionists is a clear one. Ruth Davidson, the former leader of the Scottish Tories credited with decontaminating the party’s brand north of the border, told me the Brexit argument for independence is “like telling people that the answer to cutting off your big toe is to remove the rest of the leg.” She continued: “It’s always been a mystery to me why the SNP thinks it’s a winning argument to say the answer to leaving one political union—an act they reject as damaging folly—is to leave another.”
Yet despite this there is an argument for independence that is not going away. While Scotland voted 55 per cent “No” in the “once in a generation” 2014 poll, nationalists argue its 62 per cent Remain vote two years later changed everything. Legitimate grievances expressed in recent elections may only harden now the UK has left Europe—and at the hands of a prime minister who is toxic in Scotland. Steady recent polls show that 44 per cent want a second independence vote with 17 per cent unsure, while some widely publicised surveys have shown narrow leads in favour of secession if a vote did take place. Between 60 and 65 per cent of people under 50 now say they favour independence. Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, told me momentum is “unstoppable.”
There is clearly a logic to the renewed nationalist argument. In 2014 there was no question of the UK leaving the EU. Indeed if Scotland wanted membership it was said it would be more straightforward to stay in the UK. As Kirsty Hughes, the respected director of the independent Scottish Centre for European Relations, told me, “the fact of Brexit gives a strong political justification for having a second independence referendum. In 2014, the ‘yes’ campaign was threatened with a long, arduous route back into the EU. Now independence looks like a more direct route to rejoining.” Kenny MacAskill, SNP MP and former justice secretary in the Scottish government, said he thought of independence in this context as “one step back, many steps forward.”
Yet others cite serious practical obstacles, some of which have grown only greater in light of the Brexit result. In 2014 it was a point of contention whether an independent Scotland would have to apply to rejoin the EU. Now it definitely would. Malcolm Rifkind, a former Scotland secretary, told me Edinburgh would inherit a “massive financial deficit” after independence, compounded by “the gradual disappearance of oil revenues” which prop up the Scottish economy. The accession criteria include challenging rules on the public finances which some allege would be out of reach. If Scotland had to join the euro—another subject of debate—that would prove a profound technical challenge for many reasons.
The England-Scotland border is another sticking point. The shape of any frontier would be determined by the level of divergence between the two territories. But if Scotland was in the EU it would become the EU’s external border, necessitating further controls. In this situation, “there would inevitably be a hard border,” said Rifkind, who jokingly added, in reference to Northern Ireland, “there would be an immediate need for a ‘Scottish backstop!’”
Then there is the politics. Some suggest that EU leaders do not want to offer encouragement to secessions in places like Corsica, the Basque country and parts of the Balkans. There is a belief that the Spanish would veto quick accession by Scotland, in order to discourage the breakaway of Catalonia.
Nationalists would firmly rebut all this, and certainly there are arguments on both sides. Some experts point to Croatia which joined the EU despite not meeting rules on the deficit, and ask whether Scotland is really in a worse position than states that joined like Cyprus and Latvia. The Sustainable Growth Commission, established by Sturgeon, paints a fairly optimistic economic picture. Others point to positive comments from EU leaders, such as former EU council leader Donald Tusk, who said that “everyone would be very enthusiastic” about Scotland rejoining the European club. The border could prove a “major issue,” said MacAskill, but he added that Brexiteers, not nationalists, would be to blame if there were a hard frontier. And besides, “open borders await with many more others.”
Indeed for MacAskill, there is a “growing divide” between England and Scotland “and the societies they seek… a better society can only be obtained one way.” Hughes said “Brexit makes independence a more fundamental choice in many ways—it’s not just the fact that there would probably be a hard border between Scotland and England, it’s about the type of country Scotland wants to be. Scotland is in many ways a fairly typical, social democratic European country, at ease with being European. That’s not today’s England and Wales.”
Does a parting of the ways make sense? What is certain is that the status quo is not working. The devolution settlement is not protecting Scottish interests. If the Johnson administration “wants to maintain the integrity of the Union, it needs to prove that it can be a government for all parts of the UK,” said Jess Sargeant, a researcher at the independent Institute for Government. So far Westminster has operated on a unilateral basis, overriding the concerns of the devolved administrations. Johnson’s EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill was passed despite the protestations of all three devolved governments and its touching on areas of devolved competence. This violated the Sewel constitutional convention—“an unprecedented situation,” said Sargeant. Reform of intergovernmental working is essential as the second phase of Brexit gets underway. Fraught negotiations on things like fisheries, so totemic in the Scottish consciousness, require proper consultation.
But while there is a case for reform there is not a compelling case for independence. Ultimately Brexit has shown how complicated it is to extricate one nation from a union and the constitutional fatigue that can result. Philip Rycroft, former senior civil servant in Scotland and later head of the Brexit department, drove this point home to me in a recent interview. “Brexit has shown that breaking up is hard to do. And Brexit is about coming out of a 40-odd-year-old Union as far as the UK is concerned, which is mainly economic in its intended purpose, mainly about the single market, obviously other dimensions as well. And compare that to a 300-year-old Union, where the intertwining is that much thicker. I think that is illustrative of the challenges if the UK was to begin to fall apart.”
Davidson, a former leader of the Remain campaign, said “the economic, political, cultural and civic union that is the UK is worth far more to every man, woman and child in Scotland than the EU ever has been.”
Scots are entitled to another say. But the practical challenges in 2014, already daunting, are arguably now even more insurmountable. We might be better off together. But one could not blame Scots for feeling disillusioned. And sometimes the heart, not the head, is what triumphs.